If “Happy Holidays!” was the greeting for last month, then “Happy New Year” is January’s. Is it odd that amidst so many greetings and good cheer I should feel as disconnected from my spirituality as I do right now?
It would be easy to blame the combination of the secular new year and Christmas. As much as I adore the beauty of Chanukah and enjoy the opportunity to tell stories, gamble and eat fried food with children and friends, it cannot quite challenge the seasonal omnipresence of Christmas. But why should the enthusiasm of our Christian neighbours dampen my sense of Jewishness? Doesn’t someone else’s spirituality also have the potential to inspire me? Could Christmas instead help me to feel more connected Jewishly?
When I was younger, I could not see this potential and pushed back aggressively against Christmas. I spoiled the myth of Santa Claus for several friends. I scoffed at “Chanukah trees.” I rejected wishes of “Merry Christmas” with snotty variations of “I’m Jewish” or “Not everyone celebrates Christmas, you know” and, like a bad habit, I can’t seem to remember if Christmas Eve is the 24th or 25th.
Which is why I was surprised to find myself attending Midnight Mass at Christ Church Anglican Cathedral. It was such a balmy evening this year. At 10 pm, I was outside, walking downtown under a glowing, full moon. By 11, I was on Wellington Street and noticed all the cars parked around the cathedral. So I went in. And, from my hiding place in a pew far in the back, I was soon transported by the music of the cathedral’s two choirs and by the majesty of the architecture. I sat still and listened as the soaring vastness of the cathedral was filled to brimming with voices of prayer and praise. I listened to benedictions and parables from the New Testament. I chimed in, quietly, with snatches of the carols I knew. The sermon included a rabbinical story about generosity, and when the congregants turned to shake hands with each other, I found myself joining them.
“Peace be upon you,” said the congregants to each other, and to me. “Peace be upon you,” I wished them in return.
If I feel disconnected Jewishly, I know where to reach in our traditions. As I write these words, this week’s parsha is “Va’era,” in which Moses and Aaron ask Pharaoh to “let our people go” before God sends the plagues. Next up is “Bo,” in which the children of Israel protect themselves from the last plagues and then prepare to leave Egypt and their enslavement. How can these parshot not inspire me?
I also know that our Jewish calendar can be deeply comforting with its patterns, mitzvot, celebrations and obligations. This is the power of ritual. We want to say Kaddish or light a candle on a Yahrzheit even when it hurts to dwell on the memory of a loved one’s passing. We want to take the time to honour them because we are comforted by the ritual of remembrance. We feel bereft when we don’t. Ritual and practice can help give us the scaffolding we need when we can’t quite support ourselves with our own bones and muscles.
But, because so many of us live secular lives, and since sometimes we feel disconnected from our Judaism, I wonder if we can find Jewish meaning elsewhere too? I am not advocating for us all to go to church, but I felt comforted in that cathedral, surrounded by those people reaching out to their God. Can we likewise invoke a kavanah of gratitude around a secular New Year’s Eve dinner table? Can we also find grace in the communion of music and friendship on a dance floor or in a moment of intense beauty in a theatre?
I am interested in transcendence and meaning and because sometimes it appears in the most unexpected ways, I want to be able to notice and appreciate it – even if it comes in the glow of a moon and leads me to church on Christmas Eve.
Peace be upon you. Shalom Aleichem.