For me, Christmas has never been about Chinese and a movie – it has been about family and food, watching It’s a Wonderful Life, and singing along to Counting Crows in the kitchen while doing dishes with my cousins. And yes, we opened presents next to a tree.
Now, we have never had a tree in the house, though my mom is Catholic. My dad wasn’t comfortable with one, and my mom was more interested in the spiritual components of Christmas anyway. My parents chose to raise my sister and me exclusively Jewish, and they were committed to their decision. Every Shabbat, we lit candles, said kiddush – the long version – and motzi, and attended Friday night services. And, each year on December 25th, we packed ourselves into our Subaru, drove across the bridge from Seattle into Bellevue, and spent the day with my mom’s side of the family.
When I first explained to a Jewish friend that I couldn’t be away for Christmas because I had family obligations, she was flummoxed. “What was so special about Christmas,” she asked. “You’re studying to be a rabbi!”
We all live in bubbles, spaces that swirl with people and ideas similar to us: people whose children all move through school together, who live in a certain area of town, who belong to the same socioeconomic class, who practice the same religion.
I don’t fault the bubbles – there is real comfort in being around people who look, sound and believe like us. We often feel more seen by people who we feel like will understand us best, and the people we feel will understand us best are those with whom we share lived experiences. One of my favorite articles about the concept of “bageling,” or outing oneself to fellow Jewish travelers, describes the comfort of meeting strangers who connect with us around shared life bubbles:
“On our honeymoon in Rome, we were standing at the top of the Spanish Steps next to a middle-aged couple holding a map. The husband piped up in an obvious voice, ‘I wonder where the synagogue is.’ My husband and I exchanged a knowing look at this classic Roman bagel and proceeded to strike up a conversation with this lovely couple from Chicago.” This story has always resonated with me, perhaps because traveling can be a lonely experience and so finding people who share a common characteristic brings a sort of relief and reminder that I am not, in fact, alone.
Yet, too much time spent in our bubbles can leave us isolated, uninformed, and unprepared for fruitful interaction with the wider world. On the other hand, cultivating curiosity about how people outside our bubble understand the way things work, learning about their practices and beliefs, and discussing the things they grapple with themselves helps us expand our bubbles. When we engage in learning and relationship-building with people who don’t look or sound like us, people who have widely different opinions about technology and taxes, about rules and rights, and about God and spirituality, we both expand our views and also clarify our own understandings.
Reform Judaism lives in the tension between universalism and particularism – an understanding that the religions and peoples of the world have much to teach each other and shared truths to offer, while simultaneously recognizing Jewish ritual, ethics, history and traditions as uniquely special. As such, interfaith dialogue and a desire to welcome people of other faiths into conversation around faith has long been a value for us at Temple Beth El and for Reform Jews worldwide.
Perhaps that is why I have always found my home in Reform Judaism. My parents, in choosing to help me build and develop a Jewish identity while each confidently developing their own religious identities, modeled for me what it means to be your own person while learning from each other – and they expanded the bubble through which I get to view the world.
If you would like to expand your bubble, Temple Beth El has a number of educational opportunities: join us for our Comparative Religion Series, Tuesday nights at 7:00 pm through March 6. We also will begin our next Elements of Judaism Series on March 6 if you’d like to brush up on your Jewish knowledge. And check out MeckMin, an interfaith organization here in Charlotte that strives to build bridges across differences.