Rabbi Erin Polansky
It’s that time of year again. Christmas decorations are popping up everywhere and every-other song on the radio is about jingle bells, silent nights or reindeer. We can’t escape it! We Jews often complain about how Christmas takes over everything – and not just on Dec. 25, but from just after Halloween to after New Year’s Eve!
For Jews-by-birth, it is an annual tradition to complain about the prevalence of Christmas. But how often have we stopped to think about how Christmas affects those members of our families who have either converted or decided to join our families?
Toronto Jews are proud. We don’t hide our heritage and we educate others about it. Yet this pride can be chauvinistic or elitist. Many parents of intermarried children are embarrassed that their child has “married out” and try to hide this from their friends and synagogue communities. Those who have “married out” are looked down upon as if they didn’t achieve the ideal marriage – even if the spouse is wonderful and a perfect match, there is still a sense of loss and failure.
Let’s flip our perspective. Joining the Jewish community takes years of study and soul-searching in order to decide to abandon one’s religion and embrace another. It means putting the heirloom Christmas decorations into a box and never taking them out again. It means not passing on beloved customs from one generation to the next.
Parashat Miketz always falls during this time of year. We learn that Joseph was assimilated into Egyptian society, took on an Egyptian name, dressed like an Egyptian and spoke the language. He marries Asenath, daughter of an Egyptian priest. A few chapters later, Joseph brings their two sons to receive a blessing from his father, Jacob, and to be inducted into the family tradition.
Let’s flip our perspective. Asenath is lucky enough to marry one of the most handsome, strong and desirable men in the land – he is powerful as Pharaoh’s right hand man and he has fully embraced Egyptian culture. Effectively, he has “converted” to the Egyptian way of life. (Though he never abandons the God of his father.) Joseph is a catch!
Then, all of a sudden, his family shows up. They are ragged and poor – hardly the nobility to which Asenath is accustomed. They have strange traditions and speak a strange language. Could Asenath ever have imagined such in-laws?
Her husband decides that their sons will now be raised in his ancestral tradition and gives them to his father. What does Asenath say or do? Does she object or consent? We do not know. The Torah is silent.
This is clearly not what Asenath signed up for in marrying Joseph. And yet, regardless of what her reaction may have been initially, in the end, her sons become fathers of two tribes of Israel. Asenath has, through her agreement or silence, given permission for her children to be raised in a tradition not her own.
Nowhere is Asenath acknowledged for her generous sacrifice. She gave her most precious things in the world to a foreign people and tradition. She strengthened our community and receives no credit for it.
We have many Asenaths in our midst: non-Jewish parents raising Jewish children, supporting their Jewish education, celebrating the Jewish milestones of their lives, embracing new traditions. We have Jews-by-choice who have given up their faith for ours and add strength to the Jewish People. Even though they chose this life, with every change there is a sense of loss. Think of moving from our childhood home. It was time to move on, yet we still miss that house with all of its memories.
At Christmastime, these righteous and generous partners in our midst are reminded of what they have given up. This year, let us acknowledge their contribution to strengthening our people. Let’s remember to say thank you, not to take their involvement for granted as if we, by our good graces, allow them to sit at our table.
We owe them a debt of gratitude – not only for giving up what they had, but for embracing what we have to offer and enabling it to pass to the next generation. This year, when we hear the carols and see our streets aglow, may we remember to offer the goodness of Judaism generously and with thanks.
Rabbi Erin Polansky is the spiritual leader of Neshamah Congregation of York Region in Vaughan, Ont.