New Converts Face ‘December Dilemma’


It came as a shock, that first Christmas: Kathleen Haimov of Los Alamitos, a convert to Judaism, found that she yearned for the familiar rituals and warmth of the Christian holiday.

“I missed it so much in the beginning,” she said, remembering the little windows of the Advent calendar and the rituals of putting up and decorating the Christmas tree. She also wondered whether her family would expect her to come home for Christmas dinner, and possibly, attend the midnight church service.

The “December dilemma”--how to deal with the omnipresence of Christmas--is an issue for many American Jews as they prepare for Hanukkah, which begins at sundown today. It is one that looms particularly large for recent converts.


Some Jews consider Christmas to be a secular family celebration and see no conflict with Hanukkah, a relatively minor holiday on the traditional Jewish calendar that has assumed greater prominence in part because of its proximity to Christmas. Against the advice of rabbis who warn against trying to follow both traditions, some Jewish families observe the tenets of Judaism during Hanukkah and exchange presents at Christmas.

Rebecca Bowyer of Huntington Beach, however, says that her sadness about missing Christmas festivities is offset by the joy she feels immersing herself in Jewish traditions that she will soon make her own.

Bowyer, 26, is converting after she decided to marry a Jewish man, her college sweetheart from Cal Poly Pomona.

She said she remembers Christmas with fondness--the anticipation the night before Santa was to pop down the chimney with gifts, the stockings, the tree and the Christmas carols.

But now she’s looking forward to lighting the menorah with her fiance and to forging new traditions for her new life as a Jew.

“Judaism gives me such a sense of family and a sense of togetherness,” she said. “I want religion to be a big part of my children’s lives. And our kids will still be exposed to Christmas because my family is still Christian, but we won’t celebrate it in our household.”


Feelings of loss are natural for recent converts, said Rabbi Michael Mayersohn of Temple Beth David in Westminster. He advises converts to focus on the new traditions that they gain.

“Hanukkah is the perfect holiday for those who have converted,” he said. “It’s about saying, ‘It’s OK to be different,’ and that we can actually celebrate our distinctiveness from the dominant culture.”

Hanukkah celebrates the victory of Jewish resistance to the dominant culture of the second century BC--that of Greece. In 164 BC, a Jewish army recaptured Jerusalem from the Syrian-Greek empire, which had sought to ban Jewish practices. According to tradition, when the Jews rededicated the temple, which had been desecrated, a small amount of sanctified oil miraculously burned for eight days.

To commemorate the miracle, Jews light candles for eight nights. Observances also usually include foods cooked in oil, such as the potato pancakes known as latkes.

“We have to understand that [converts] are leaving behind emotional connections from Christmas,” Mayersohn said. “We have to help replace them with the smell and the taste of latkes, the music of Hanukkah songs, with the pleasure of playing Hanukkah games with children and with the wonderful tradition of lighting candles every night for eight nights.”

Not all can make the switch, however. Virginia Gilbert, who lives in the Hollywood Hills and converted to Judaism more than six years ago, found that the solution was to return to Christianity and leave the Hanukkah celebration to her husband David, who is Jewish.


“The rituals of putting the Christmas tree up really linked me to my family,” said Gilbert, 37. “It was much more powerful than simple red baubles.”

Many converts to Judaism say that giving up Christmas “was one of the most difficult things they dealt with during their conversion,” said Ron Wolfson, vice president and director of the Whizin Center for the Jewish Future at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. “Christmas has so many family memories attached to it.”

According to Wolfson, the symbols of the holiday may seem secular but are laden with religious significance. The Christmas tree, for example, is an evergreen to symbolize the everlasting life of Christ and the star on the tree represents the star of Bethlehem.

As for Haimov, she ended up working out a compromise: “The children always understood that we didn’t celebrate Christmas, although we did share it with Grandma and Grandpa.”