Watching the ball drop slowly in my daughter’s life.
We don't have around my house what the American Jewish press likes to call the "December dilemma." We make big efforts for the major Jewish festivals, celebrate Chanukah in a warm and low-key way and are too exhausted by our own holidays to want anybody else's. No dilemma.
But then there's the secular New Year.
The other evening I took a walk with my 9-year-old daughter. We admired the Christmas lights (not too many of those in Pico-Robertson) and chatted about this and that. Then she surprised me with a novel notion: that January 1 marks the completion of the sun's cycle; that is, that 1/1 represents the anniversary of God setting the sun to work in the sky.
"But isn't that Rosh Hashanah?" I asked. She allowed that on second thought it probably was. She knows the "general" dating system is based on the years since the birth of Jesus; but she apparently doesn't know how to connect that fact to what she has learned about the Jewish reckoning of time. January 1 is New Year's Day, and God made the world: she had invented a synthesis.
Ten years old and trying to figure things out.
It must be confusing to her that even most Jews date events - everything from the fall of Jerusalem to her birthday - according to the Christian year. I date my checks by it, do my taxes because of it, begin a new volume for my daily journal to mark it. Erev New Year, we even go to a party. That is, my daughter has good precedent for considering January 1 our New Year too.
Of course, New Year's Day isn't our holiday at all. It's a Christian holiday that drags with it a load of noisy pagan solstice festivity. In the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar, it remains what it always was, the Feast of the Circumcision, the day marking the brit milah
of the man-god.
Though I like to have and teach respect for the religious traditions of my neighbors, I find this a pretty weird concept, to tell you the truth.
Tonight at dinner, as if continuing our conversation of the other evening, my daughter asked if she could have a wall calendar for her room. "Not a Jewish one, a regular one," she said; the opposite of Jewish is "regular." She meant, she said, "one that has Chanukah and Christmas, Easter and Passover."
We offered her the new Sierra Club calendar a friend had sent for Chanukah. "Why do you want it?" my wife asked.
"I just do," she shrugged. If she understood why, she wouldn't say.
I guess she wants to experiment with being "regular," a citizen-at-large. As she comes increasingly into full awareness, she is working on the project of becoming an American no less industriously than on the project of becoming a Jew.
She knows already, deep in her bones, that the world has not only two geographical hemispheres but two spiritual/cultural ones as well, the Jewish and the "Other." That much has been bred into her. Now her hard work begins. How she manages to understand and integrate those two hemispheres will determine what kind of Jew and what kind of woman she will become.
The struggle with the cultural duality is characteristic of Jews, of all minorities, I suppose. Nonetheless, I had the naive fantasy that raising my daughter in a religious home and sending her to an Orthodox day school would obviate the need for her to struggle that way; she would live in unity. I was mistaken. All that her upbringing can give her is good tools to investigate with. She will have to find on her own her place to dig.
In fact, even her religious school doesn't always help. A couple of weeks ago, she bought at the school book fair a junior-high novel in which nothing happens except that the girls are mindlessly fascinated by the boys - just the sort of thing I thought I could curb by sending her to day school. (Her school does worse than that, in truth. By keeping the girls from Talmud study, it purposely limits my daughter's intellectual development, inviting unflattering comparison with the "regular" culture, which encourages her to learn everything she can. But that's a subject for another time.)
She is only 9, still our little girl, but I can see that our influence as parents is already beginning to wane. More and more, what happens to her now happens outside our home, or through her books, her carefully rationed hours of TV, her friends. English is our native language; my daughter will fill herself up with information she will have to grapple with on her own. America is our native country; she will try on its values and styles while deciding on her own. She is becoming an American
Yes, before our eyes, our little daughter, deeply engaged in the project of creating herself, is slipping into her own life. I miss her already, even as I look forward to meeting the young woman she will become.
To her and to you, success in the secular new year.