Archive for the ‘religion’ Category

I think I’ve given away enough in this blog that people realize (if they care to think about it) that I live in Ontario. We are coming up to an election, and the big topic this time is funding for religious education.

Ontario is in a ridiculous position. The government funds public school and free education for Catholics. Just Catholics. The rest of us get nada, zip, zipch, nothing. Even the most hardline postion against public funding of religious education would probably agree that since our children are learning the Ontario curriculum, the government could cut us a little slack for that part of their schooling. But instead, the Catholics go free and we pay every cent of our kids’ education.

The Liberals, who are in power, insist it will stay that way. Way back when Ontario became Ontario, the constitution entrenched free Catholic education because that was pretty much everyone: Catholics and Protestants. Now when people point out the inequity, The Liberals and a lot of Catholics just hide behind that, as though that were actually a reasonable response. But the Ontario of today is a very different place.

What outrages me the most is that Dalton McGuinty, the Liberal leader, says he won’t ever fund religious education because Ontario is about pluralism and multiculturalism and he wants our children to grow up to be public-minded individuals, and religious education can’t do that. I suspect that Dalton would consider himself a public-minded individual, given that he’s premier and all, but he went to Catholic school. And so do his kids.

So why is it that if my kids go to Jewish day school, they will become close-minded bigots, but his kids can go to Catholic school and they are just fine? Because Dalton McGuinty is a huge hypocrite, that’s why.

I don’t even want my kids to go for free. I just want the government to pay for the non-religious part of their education. I don’t think that would break the bank, because I bet a lot more kids would put their kids in religious schools if it cost half what it costs now, and thereby be subsidizing the system more. I also want them to make the Catholics start paying for the religious part of their education too, but even if we get the first, we won’t get the second.

As far as I can tell, the people who are against funding religious schools come from two camps. One thinks that no religious education should be funded at all and that includes the Catholics. Frankly, even though that would do me no personal good, I can get behind that. At least it is fair.

The other, as far as I can tell, is afraid of the Muslims. They have the notion that if we encourage them band together and teach their own children, the kids will all turn into little jihadists. This is, obviously, terribly unfair to the Muslim community, as well as being generally ridiculous. No one expects that the government would just hand over the money to anyone who opens a school. There would be regulations regarding the curriculum and standards that would have to be met.

It is obvious by this point that I send my kids to religious school, a Jewish day school. This choice means that I only go to the in-laws’ cottage for vacation and have no savings. As the costs rise (Boo is starting full time this September, joining her brother and sister), I cringe and wriggle and bang my head against the wall over how much this is costing us, but I cannot bear to take them out. They love school. Sure, they whine, as all kids do, but when it comes right down to it, they love school. They are getting a solid education and have a strong sense of their own identities.

The Conservative party has promised funding for religious schools. In all other regards, I hate their policies. Every provincial election, I have walked into the polling booth not knowing who I was going to vote for – the party with the ethics that fits most with mine, or the dark side, which would at least give me money to send my kids to school. Every year, thus far, I’ve been unable to put the little tick beside the Conservative candidate, but that is going to change this year. McGuinty’s hypocrisy has pissed me off too much, and I’m holding my nose and voting for the Conservatives.

I wrote a column recently about why I chose to send my kids to religious school. I think I’ll post that tomorrow. This thing is too long already. If you want a more fact-filled history of this topic, you could go to this guy. He’s an actual political journalist who know what he’s talking about.

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I got the 1000-word piece in Friday morning, at 1007 words. That’s pretty good. Okay, there’s more to writing than coming in right on the word limit (or almost right on). It is often required that the writing also not suck. We’ll wait and see about that one. J thinks we’ll get flack because conversion in Judaism is a wee bit of a contentious subject and I am no expert, except that I actually did convert. I pointed out that journalists are rarely experts. We just do some research and then throw the article together with a 2-day deadline. But no doubt we’ll still piss someone off. I look forward to seeing who.

(I removed the rest of the post. See above.)

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How does this blogging thing work when you want to respond to comments made on your blog? Add more comments, or write stuff here? I’m going with writing it here, but I may be breaking some rule of netiquette.

Pamela – I’m glad the 13 year thing helped you too. It does make a big difference, doesn’t it? I don’t think it matters, as Zed points out, whether it is exactly 13 years or not – you can start counting from wherever you please, from whenever you first felt Jewish. But it is nice to give yourself that break and not think that you must be instanta-Jew the moment you convert. Taking on a culture and religion you weren’t born into is a daunting task, and one no conversion course is ever going to be up to on its own.

I do actually remember the exact moment I realized I felt Jewish. It was during the winter holidays, but I can’t remember if it 12 or 13 years ago. We were up at my to-be-in-laws cottage and two things happened within the space of a day to clue me in. One morning, a couple of Jehovah’s Witnesses knocked on the door and as J went to answer it, I yelled down, “Tell them we’re Jewish so not to come back.” And then realized that I was not, in fact, Jewish. That night, we were having dinner at a neighbour’s house and they had couple of guests. Talk came around to the holidays and one guest commented on how she had no interest in Christmas, then she turned to me and said, “No offense.” No offense? What the hell did that mean? Why would I care what she thought about Christmas? Then the deeper meaning hit, that she had singled me out, that she considered me different than the rest of them. I felt the same, but other people didn’t percieve me as the way I felt, and I realized it was time to formalize for the outside world what I felt on the inside. Hey, Pam and Zed, if you are still reading – when did you first know?

I never liked the commercialize messages either, and one of the biggest things I’m happy about skipping by not celebrating Christmas is the list kids write to Santa. It now strikes me as incredibly greedy – writing down a list of demands. (I never really saw it that way as a kid, of course, and never expected to get everything on it, either.) I can totally understand its usefulness as a tool in getting gifts your kids will like – I always find that quite the crap-shoot – but I really like that my kids don’t get to ask for gifts. They just get what they get.

That is the part I’m happiest to get rid off. But I also have to admit, and I won’t tell my kids this until they grow up, that while I think both Hanukkah and Christmas are both great holidays for kids and both have their good aspects and drawbacks, I sometimes feel a little badly for my kids that they won’t ever feel that outrageous, hysterical sense of excitment I felt when I was a kid on Christmas eve. My kids get very excited about Hanukkah, but I don’t see in them the level of excitment I had when I was their age. I’d stay awake half the night, too excited to sleep and sometimes I’d hear Santa downstairs! Oh My God, Santa is downstairs!!!! (Of course, it was the parents putting the gifts out, but I never went down to find out.) I heard the reindeer on the roof too. (My own imagination.) And the next morning, coming down and seeing all those presents – there really is nothing like it for sheer material happiness for a kid.

I’m inspired. Things I miss about Christmas:

Chosing the tree, the smell of the tree, the lights on the tree in the evening, the hysterical excitment of a pile of gifts under the tree, Christmas crackers, believing in a guy who comes down the chimney with gifts, some Christmas carols.

Things I don’t:

A list to Santa, sitting your kid in Santa’s lap, madly wandering the mall in search of the right gift for everyone on my list, trying to figure out who should be on the list and who shouldn’t, the sinking feeling when someone gives me a gift who I haven’t gotten a gift for, sending out Chrismas cards.

Things I love about Hanukkah: the look on my kids’ faces when they first light the candles, all the menorahs lined up and lit, latkes, gelt, that it lasts eight days, that we only give gifts to kids.

Despite not having that mad sense of excitment, I don’t think my kids are in any way deprived by not having Christmas (especially because they do have it to some degree, because they celebrate with their cousins and grandparents). In fact, I think that when you weigh out the whole year, they are luckier than I was as a kid, because they get more holidays and more excuses to spend time with family and they get to be Jewish – and I think being Jewish is a Good Thing.

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This is the name given the dilemma Jews face in the Western world, coping with the frenzy that is Christmas. For parents, the issue is frequently how to compete against its wild commercial excitement armed only with a minor non-biblical holiday. For Rabbis, it is the often-futile attempts to stop their congregation from trying to compete, from turning Hanukkah into Christmaskah. For those who have come to Judaism by choice as adults, the dilemma is something different, and frequently a very lonely time.

I got an email from someone who had surfed onto my blog asking me how I cope with Christmas as a converted Jew (those of us who converted prefer the term “Jew by choice” but it takes longer to write, so I might cheat a bit). She said she feels like a complete outsider and can’t wait for the month to be over. I sympathize, because I did go through this, but her question made me realize that I really don’t feel that much any more. So now I’m trying to figure out why I no longer dread December.

I think it comes down to three things: time, observance and community.

I’ve been a Jew for 11.5 years now. The woman who wrote to me has been one for two years. Believe me, it makes a difference. Even with all the preparation one does to convert, dunking in the mikvah does not an instant Jew make. That takes time.

When I had only been Jewish for a couple of years, I went to an award ceremony for volunteers in the community. One woman, who I greatly admire, won a leadership award. When she accepted it, she talked about being a Jew by choice which I hadn’t realized she was. She said that those who convert shouldn’t expect to feel instantly Jewish. She had given herself 13 years, because that’s how long any child born into Judaism gets to become a full-fledge Jew, so why shouldn’t she get the same deal? That one comment completely ended the pressure I put on myself – I was just a baby Jew!

By observance, I mean being a practicing Jew, however you chose to practice. You can’t just ditch Christmas without having something to replace it. And by that, I don’t just mean Hanukkah. I mean Shabbat, Passover, Sukkot. After a few years of marriage, J and I (and then the children) created our own holiday rituals. I realized this isn’t just something that happens for those who convert to another religion. My mother came from Holland, where Sinterclaus left gifts in her wooden clog, so she remade her December holiday too, when she showed up here in Canada.

There is a difference, though, because she didn’t have reminders of Sinterclaus everywhere she turned. But if you get involved in the larger Jewish community, it feels less like Christmas is everywhere. With lots of friends also celebrating Hanukkah, you don’t feel so lonely. I’m sometimes amazed at how distant Christmas is to my kids. A few days ago Maya, who is 10, asked me what date Christmas comes on this year. Since all the Jewish holidays move around each year depending on the moon, she never realized Christmas doesn’t.

I realized at about the 10 year mark that I really do feel fully Jewish, that there are actually times I forget that I wasn’t always Jewish. When that happened, thanks to all those things – time, observance and community – Christmas became no longer painful. It is no longer a reminder of what I gave up. As I’ve mentioned earlier, I’m not an outsider, I’m just in a different place.

When that happens, Christmas is fun again. I enjoy the lights, tell my kids stories of what it was like to celebrate Christmas when I was a kid, buy ornaments for my parents’ tree, all without feeling weird or left-out.

For a few years, I really resented that Christmas was everywhere, that shop-keepers wished me a Merry Christmas. Don’t they realize not everyone celebrates, I’d grumble to myself. Now, I don’t care. Most people do celebrate, so let them go to it.

I also cheat, by the way. The kids and I make a huge batch of Hanukkah cookies each December – we decorate sugar cookies in the shape of stars, dreidels and menorahs instead of Christmas trees and Santa Clauses. At Passover, we colour eggs. I figure eggs are a symbol of spring renewal whether you are Jewish, Christian or pagan, so why not? So I successfully sneak in my happy childhood rituals anyway.

This doesn’t mean there isn’t a pang when I pass by a Christmas tree lot and smell that wonderful Christmas tree smell, or when 4-year-old Boo says, “Why can’t we put up lights?” But they are brief. Yesterday, I watched the neighbour struggle in the cold to put up their lights and was happy to realize that I’d never have to drag my butt up a ladder to put up lights in the freezing cold. That I could enjoy their lights, guilt-free, drinking hot chocolate and eating Hanukkah cookies. Sometimes it works out, being on the inside, looking out.

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Shul and boredom

When I said in my last post that ‘the kids’ are delighted, I was projecting a bit. Maya was delighted but I hadn’t actually told Asher yet. Since he was so pleased to be there when we went for Simchat Torah and begged to join, I assumed he’d be delighted to find we had, just as Maya was.

Never assume.

He was horrified. It took him about a nanosecond to figure out that if we join a new place that the kids said they liked it would mean going to services more often. If only I could adequately convey the level of distress in his voice when he wailed, “But shul is bor-ing!!” I explained that Maya’s bat mitzvah is coming up so we are really going to have to start attending more often, because how can you have a bat mitzvah if you don’t even know how the service goes. He had a two-pronged approach to that. One, they already know all the prayers because of school so how many services do they need to see to know what order they go in at shul? And two, if it’s Maya’s bat mitzvah, let her go to shul. Why torment him?

I liked that latter one, and said, “Well, maybe Daddy should bring Maya and I’ll stay here with you and …” And Maya yelled, “NO! No! You aren’t getting out of this! You have to come too!” Party pooper.

I think services are boring too, I have to confess. I liked the ones at the Reform shul because you can sing along a lot and the songs are pretty and I can practice my Hebrew as I sing. But the Conservative shul is much more passive and I’m going to be much more bored.

J just sits there calmly during services, in some quiet zen-like state, broken only to glare at me like the fidgety child I am. I’m not good at sitting still unless I am doing at least two things at once, even if they are writing on the computer and listening to the radio. I can only watch TV if I also knit or write in my journal. I take an adult ed course at the Jewish Community Centre and write in my journal as well as participating fully in the class. In university, I wrote long letters to my parents and boyfriend while in lectures because otherwise I’d just space out entirely. I carry my journal, knitting and a book or newspaper with me everywhere just in case I get stuck somewhere with nothing to do. The thought horrifies me. So sitting in shul and just listening is … painful.

I told my rabbi at the Reform shul that I wished I could bring my knitting to Rosh Hoshannah services and he told me to go right ahead, he wouldn’t have a problem with it. Unfortunately, J did have a problem with it. He was horrified when I knit at a hockey game once and that’s way less serious than synagogue.

So I’m trying to figure out a way to survive the boredom. I can’t bring my Palm Pilot in. J won’t let me knit. Maybe Asher and I should play tic tac toe. But that’ll only take us so far. I wonder if people would notice if I had a Sudoku book?

While I cuddled with my irate boy, trying to calm him down, I kept coming up with reasons why it wouldn’t be so awful, clearly trying to convince myself as well as him. I even tried, “How can you be a good Jew if you never go to shul?” I thought I had him there because being Jewish is very central to his identity (at one birthday party when he was 5, he took his cousin around to meet all the kids in his class and introduced her this way: “This is my cousin M. She’s not Jewish … This is my cousin M. She’s not Jewish … This is M, my cousin. She’s not Jewish …” We finally convinced him that information wasn’t pertinent at that point, but it was hard for him to get how it isn’t always pertinent.)

He didn’t fall for it, saying, “I’m a good Jew now and I don’t go. And I will when it comes time for my bar mitzvah.” I finally calmed him down by telling him that since it is winter time, we probably won’t get many chances, since we frequently go up to the cottage in winter and go skiing, so he really doesn’t have to worry about anything until spring. By then maybe he’ll be used to the idea. (and so will I.)

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Busy day

Well, not so much busy as maybe momentous. Or half momentous.

I got my hair cut for the first time in a year. I’ve been trying to grow it longer so I can braid it more easily, but it was just getting too heavy and wild. Now it feels much better. And I made another appointment for only 2 weeks from now to get it highlighted. I have never had a hairdresser to anything to me but cut my hair (well, there were the perms in the 80s, but I try to forget those). I tried a wash-out red highlight thing I got at the drugstore a couple of weeks ago and really liked the results, so I’ve decided to go permanent. Radical, eh? I’m 40 and this is the first time I’m doing something with the colour of my hair.

Before that, J and I met with the rabbi of the Conservative synagogue in our city. For those who don’t know, basically the continuum is that the Orthodox movement are the most traditional, the Reform are the most liberal and the Conservative are in the middle. That’s a simplification and leaves out Chabad and Reconstructionism, but it is the simplest description.

When I converted, I did it through the Reform synagogue. I refused to go to a place that wasn’t completely egalitarian and the Reconstructionists, who are also egalitarian, were just too small to easily convert with. But it wasn’t just a matter of ruling the others out. I like it there. I liked it even better when the rabbi who did the converting left and they got a new one, just before J and I got married. He married us, did the naming ceremonies for our children and has become a good friend. I climbed Masada with him. He helped me prepared to read from the Torah for the first time at the Southern wall of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem last spring. So, we like him, we like the participatory nature of the services and we like a lot of the other members and have no real desire to move to anywhere knew.

But our children have different ideas. Man, the things you end up doing for your kids. I already have a minivan and a house in the burbs. Will it never end?

Very few of the families who send their kids to the Jewish day school here also attend the Reform shul (Hebrew word for synagogue and a lot easier to write). And visa versa. To make it worse, the Reform place isn’t very good at welcoming kids at their services. So our kids don’t go the school and don’t feel welcome at services – what’s left? Whining, that’s what. Especially from Maya, who sees all her friends talking about what happened at some event or other at the Conservative place while she got dragged to the Reform service where she knew no one and was bored silly.

The breaking point was Simchat Torah last year. It is supposed to be a fun holiday, fun, fun, fun. She heard about how much fun it is at school and was very excited about going to shul, so off we went and it was a total bust. Not fun. Slow and boring and pretty much in no way engaged the kids. She was so angry and upset. I think she might even have cried with disappointment. So we promised to check out the Conservative shul, but didn’t really get around to it until this Simchat Torah.

What a difference! All the kids’ friends were there, so they just ran off immediately. There was tons of kids’ programing, like a clown to keep the little ones amused. And since all those kids’ parents were there too, we also had a great time. We kept looking at each other with chagrin and saying, “This is pretty nice, isn’t it?”

So we made an appointment to talk to the Rabbi about joining. The big issue was my conversion, since some Conservative rabbis might have trouble with a Reform conversion. He said, “Did you go to the mikvah?” I was shocked that he even needed to ask that – of course! “So it’s fine.” That was it.

The other issue is fitting Maya’s bat mitzvah in, since most kids her age already have their dates, but as long as we are willing to be flexible, it doesn’t look like it will be a problem.

There is still some stuff that bothers me, like the fact that women don’t count in a minyan at this shul and that they won’t allow non-Jews up on the bima (the raised part at the front). It means that relatives of those who converted can have virtually no role in a bar or bat mitzvah. The rabbi doesn’t like it and is trying to get it changed, so maybe by the time Maya gets up there it’ll be okay. (I suspect my folks will be secretly delighted to have an out, but it still annoys me.)

I also like the weekly services much less. It is a bit of a catch-22: stick with the place where I enjoy the service and I’ll rarely get to go or go to the place the kids like and I’ll get to go a lot to a service I don’t enjoy as much.

At least the seats are more comfortable at the Conservative shul.

The kids – Maya and Asher at least – are delighted, to the point that they agreed to go to services regularly. I guess everything in life is a compromise.

In the afternoon, after meeting the rabbi, getting my hair cut and doing some grocery shopping, I came home and had a nap. I can rarely make it through a day the past couple of months without one. Frequently I have one right after the kids get off to school, but if I am out first thing in the morning, I will come home in the afternoon and snooze. I hate it. I am deeply, deeply frustrated by the time I waste sleeping, but if I don’t then I have trouble staying awake while driving the kids home and fall asleep reading them bedtime stories. It is another compromise – in order to stay conscious enough to look after my children, I must sleep when they aren’t around. But obviously my productivity has taken a big nose-dive and it is really pissing me off. I thought it would get better when all that damn rain stopped, but it didn’t. At least I have an appointment with my rhumatologist next week so I can whine, for all the good it won’t do me.

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I popped into a department store on Wednesday to pick up some little thing and was assaulted with the scent of cinnamon and the sight of candy canes everywhere. Sleigh bells ring, are you listening …

Oh come on. I know, it’s an old complaint, but do they have to do it the moment Halloween is over? We don’t get one second to breathe?

This is one area where the Americans have it really good compared to Canadians (and I’m a feminist leftie, so I don’t generally think the Americans have it good compared to us when it comes to consumerism). They still have Thanksgiving to get through, so I think they get to hold off on the Christmas stuff still.

Another unoriginal pet peeve – the obsession with calling Christmas “the holidays.” Like the catalogue that came the other day with a train set for the holidays, featuring Santa and his reindeer. There didn’t seem to be any other holidays involved.

This year marks the eleventh anniversary of my conversion to Judaism. It also marks my eleventh anniversary of not celebrating Christmas. I admit, at first I tried to weasel my way out of that, suggesting to my husband-to-be that we could have a tree and just tell the kids that we are Jewish, but mommy use to celebrate … No tree, he said. Jews don’t have trees.

I wanted Christmas because it evoked that warm fuzzy feeling of my childhood, the magic of Santa and the excitement of brightly wrapped presents under the tree. I also felt badly for my future children, who would never get to experience that magic. But Jews don’t have trees, so I gave it up, and felt badly during December for a few years after that, on the outside, looking in.

But the sadness faded. Our kids, as they grew, revelled in Hanukkah (and Purim, and Passover and Rosh Hoshanah). They don’t miss Christmas. They love lighting the candles on their menorahs and their eyes shine when I bring out a big bag of gelt (chocolate money) to play the dreidel game.

We take them to my parents house to celebrate Christmas, giving Christmas presents and receiving Hanukkah ones in return, and they clearly enjoy the tree and the lights, but to my surprise, it never evoked the same sense of delight as their Hanukkah celebrations do. They aren’t on the outside looking in. They are just in a different place.

Jews don’t have trees, and my kids are happy with that. And now so am I. But the city of Boston wasn’t last year. Every year, Nova Scotia gives Boston a huge evergreen in thanks for the help that city provided Halifax after the explosion of 1917. Last year, Boston announced the tree will no longer be a Christmas tree, but a Holiday tree.

At the time, I remember, a spokesperson said that lots of people enjoy the lights “we’re trying to be inclusive.”

This is not new. A few years back, Toronto and Ottawa tried the same thing. When they put their huge evergreens up at city hall, covered in Christmas decorations, city officials insisted that what they were putting up was a Holiday tree. And they received the same reaction: a lot of upset Christians wanted their Christmas tree back.

Can you imagine what J’s reaction would have been if I’d told him, back when I first converted, that I didn’t want to put a Christmas tree up, but a Holiday tree? Do you think he would have said, “Oh, okay then. That’s different.”

I am sure that, no matter what I’d called it, he would have said, “No tree. Jews don’t have trees.” Neither do Muslims, Hindus or Buddhists. So whose holiday are they now including, by removing the ‘Christmas’ from the tree? If Boston really wanted to be inclusive, they’d put a menorah beside their Christmas tree instead of assuming that calling the tree a different name will change anything.

In fact, if I’m going to find anything offensive now, it is the assumption that calling something ‘Holiday’ instead of ‘Christmas’ is in any way more inclusive. Last year, our city newspaper printed a booklet of ‘Holiday’ songs, but the only holiday songs inside were Christmas ones. For a brief moment, as I opened the booklet, I thought maybe I’d find one token Hanukkah song to justify the ‘holiday’ in the title. Nope.

Here’s my suggestion: if you are putting up Christmas lights, or a Christmas tree or hosting a lunch at work with a secret Santa, use the word ‘Christmas,’ because that is what it is. I can guarantee most non-Christians will have no problem with it. If you really want to be inclusive and use the word ‘Holiday,’ try actually including something representative of another holiday.

But not until December 1st.

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