Sunday, December 17, 2017

that thing you do

As we are in the throes of Chanukah — I believe we are up to night eighteen or nineteen — I am reminded of just how not religious I am.

I have never been a big fan or supporter of religion. I attended synagogue only a handful of time as a child. As a teen, I went to many Bar and Bat Mitzvahs of friends, but didn't have a ceremony of my own. Of course, I took full advantage of religious holidays as a day off from school, but those days never ever included any sort of formal observances.

In 1982, I met Mrs. P (of course, she wouldn't actually become "Mrs. P" for another two years), who, I would later find out, was pretty traditional in her religious beliefs and practices. Within a few minutes of our first meeting, she informed me that she observed the laws of kashrut (keeping kosher). I immediately made a joke, stating that the only people I knew who kept kosher were in their eighties. Indeed, my wife kept a kosher home and when we got married, since she maintained the kitchen, the rules of kashrut were applied there, as well. 

In my pre-vegetarian days, I still ate what I wished (except, of course, in our house). But when our son was born, I made the decision to go "full-on kosher." I figured it would be confusing and contradictory, in his young eyes, if Daddy ate one way and Mommy ate another. As our son grew, he was enrolled in Jewish schools, with religious reinforcement at synagogue and at home. We lit candles every Shabbat (Friday evening) and heartily celebrated all Jewish holidays — major and minor, including a lot I never heard of and some I suspected my wife was making up. I was still not comfortable with the religious aspect of the whole deal, but the bond that was formed within our family was very strong, so I overlooked what I saw as "nonsense."

As our son entered the waning days of his high school years, he questioned everything. Every single concept, idea and reason for tradition. Of course, he brought his questions home for discussion. My wife stood by her traditions, but I, who had no religious upbringing, was in complete agreement with the utter baloney I always felt religion represented. However, as time marched on, my wife's solid beliefs relaxed and softened. We attended synagogue services less and less — with my attendance dwindling to "never." I stopped requesting days off from work for all Jewish holidays. I still (reluctantly) go to holiday dinners at my in-laws' house, mostly because the religious rituals and the blind, fanatically-outlandish behavior of those who participate in them make me cringe.

And, now, ladies and gentlemen, here's where our story takes a ridiculous, inexplicable turn....

I still light Chanukah candles. I like lighting Chanukah candles — every night for as long as the holiday lasts. When I was a kid, we had an electric menorah (technically a chanukiah, as a menorah is a word that refers to any candelabra) that featured light bulbs that just twisted into a socket with each new night of the holiday. It wasn't until I got married that I was introduced to an actual Chanukah menorah with actual wax candles. My wife and I, and later our son, light one every year during the nights between the end of November and the end of December that the lunar calendar has designated as Chanukah. Mrs. P and I no longer exchange gifts, but when our boy was a boy, it was another instance of warm family bonding. Why do I still do this and still enjoy it? I don't know.

Every year, on the days corresponding to the Hebrew dates of the 9th and 28th of Tishrei respectively, I light a yahrzeit candle in remembrance of the passing of my mother and father. Although my parents practiced little to no observance of religion, I remember my mom kindling a little shot glass-sized candle twice a year in honor of her parents. There are really no religious overtones (as far as I can tell) associated with this ritual. I miss my parents, though not a day goes by that I don't make some sort of reference to them. I don't say any sort of prayer before I light the candle (Don't even get me started on my feelings about prayer, that's a subject for another, extremely lengthy, blog). I just light it and that's it. Why do I do this? I don't know.

Just this past week, my department at work held its annual holiday luncheon and gift exchange. After lunch was finished, we gathered around a big conference room table that was laden with gaily wrapped gifts. The distribution plan involves each member of the department bringing a gift. Then numbers are selected from a hat (or bucket or bowl... whatever holly-decorated vessel in available). One by one, in number order, participants choose one of the gifts and unwrap it. The next person can either pick a new gift or "steal" a gift that has already been chosen. This process, which, at times, can verge on vicious, continues until all the gifts are opened and no fist fights erupt. In some circles, this party game is called a "Yankee swap," or "white elephant exchange," or a number of racially-insensitive names that I will not mention.

At this year's event, I opened, and eventually came home with, the most fitting gift. Even as I tore the concealing Santa Claus-themed wrap, several of my co-workers began to laugh knowingly. It was a game with a very Josh Pincus-centric title:
I think this sums things up nicely.


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