Ending wrapping-paper war with non-Jewish relatives

Oy vey, it was now my mission to express our plan to my family. Up to this point my entire family had been very supportive of my conversion to Judaism. I knew they accepted and respected my decision; however, I knew the latkes would really hit the fan when I requested that they alter their holiday routine. My family, being your typical “non-religious” celebrators of Christmas, felt very strongly about the aesthetics of their holiday. I believe it is easier to deal with “religious” Christians regarding this issue because they accept the holiday as having religious meaning and more than just a family gathering with gifts.

But for me this was not the case.

I fired the first shot. “Mom, I am calling about the holidays, Michael and I are hoping the family could wrap our gifts in Chanukah paper rather than Christmas paper.” Silence. Then she said, “OK, I understand, but you need to talk to your sisters.” My mother, the ultimate peace negotiator, was kosher with it but I knew by the sound of her voice and the pit in my stomach that the big battle was yet to come.

The phone call with my sister lasted two hours, and on both sides there was anger, frustration, sadness and so many tears. It was a painful examination of our beliefs and our differences. For her it felt like I was trampling on something cute, sweet and, for her, non-religious. In my sister’s eyes I was executing Santa Claus without a fair trial.

It was difficult for her to understand our need to celebrate Chanukah and have our holiday honored and celebrated on a parallel level with hers. It felt intrusive and demanding for her. My sister wondered how she would explain it to her children. “The same way I will when I have kids,” I retorted. The phone call ended; we were both exhausted and had no more tears left. I was sad, angry, hurt, confused and even felt some guilt.

I did not want to hurt my family who had been so accepting of me. But I was doing this not just for me but for my future Jewish children. I want them to feel honored and respected for their beliefs and holidays, as I will raise them to honor and respect my family’s traditions.

When one converts, it’s like having holiday amnesia. You can choose to celebrate and create traditions without any baggage from your past. Michael, who as a child felt alienated by society during the December holidays, wanted something very different for his children. He wanted them to experience the joy, laughter and knowledge. The wrapping-paper war was something much larger then the packaging of a gift. It was about love, respect and not just tolerating differences but truly celebrating them.

The white flag was waved a few days later at my parents’ house. The entire family was there. One of my sisters voiced her opinion. “I am the giver of the gift so I can give it in the paper I want to, which will be Christmas paper.”

I was so saddened by what I was hearing that I simply started to cry. I looked at her with tears running down my face and said, “Why would you not want our kids to feel like their aunt respected their holiday, too? Why would you want them to feel less? Explain it to me, please, why is this so hard?”

She stopped and her face became very soft and finally she just admitted, “I don’t know.”

In that moment, I knew she got it, I knew they got it.

A few weeks later, when they came to light the menorah at our home, they brought gifts wrapped in the cutest Chanukah paper ever. Remember, my family is into aesthetics. My dad brought us games like Jewish bingo and old maid and was amazed to find them at his local drugstore. My mother and sisters told of their complaining to the manager at Target because it had not a single Chanukah card! With tears in my eyes, Michael and I told the story of the Maccabees and their fight for religious freedom as my nieces lit the candles.

At our Chanukah celebration that year, we had it all: joy, laughter, knowledge — of traditions new and old.

The writer converted to Judaism in 1992. She is a psychologist and the director of the Jew-By-Choice Network in Los Angeles.