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My holy bubble

Growing up in America, New Year's was never my holiday

“Brrrrrrrrring,” rang the phone as I turned, bleary-eyed and not-yet-caffeinated from my Facebook newsfeed. Fumbling a bit with the receiver, I cursed a kosher curse (dang it) and clearing my throat said in my bright cheery telephone voice, “Hello?”

I heard that faraway sound you hear when someone calls long distance, but instead of a voice, I heard background noise. Something like a muted crowd scene in a movie, or like when my husband’s phone accidentally calls me as he’s running errands in the center of town. “Hello??” I said; ready to hang up, when I heard the unmistakable voice of my mother in-law.

“Can you hear that?” she asked.

“I hear something,” I said.

“How about now?” she asked.

“Not really,” I said, walking with the phone to my husband, thinking she’d want to speak with him. “Let me put Dov on the phone,” I said.

“No, wait!!” she said. “I want you to hear this. It’s the neighbors. Can you hear it now? One of them is setting off firecrackers.”

All of a sudden, it hit me: she was sharing the sound of New Year’s Eve revelry on her street. She wanted me to hear what she was hearing, experience what she was experiencing. To her mind, she was doing me a favor, giving me a taste of something she assumes I sorely miss: the sound of midnight in America (and in most of the world) on New Year’s Eve.

Mindful that my mother in-law is elderly, and my mother in-law to boot, I wanted to be kind and polite, and I tried, God knows. But as she went on and on, enthusing over the ruckus, I could feel my mouth puckering in distaste. I just didn’t really WANT to hear about New Year’s Eve. I just don’t relate.

I know, I know. That sounds nasty. I don’t mean to be nasty, honest I don’t. But it’s just not my culture. In my head, a voice is saying, “This is why you came to Israel: so you don’t have to listen to that sound, the sound of New Year’s.”

I wrote something to that effect on my Facebook status after I got off the phone and a friend chided me, “Oh, come on. You had better reasons than escaping from celebration…”


I thought about that for a minute and then I wrote, “I did have better reasons, but the main emotional reason I had for making Aliyah was that I wanted to feel I belonged. There, I never did. Here, I do.”

And that’s the truth. I’ve written about this before, in my personal blog, about never really feeling a part of things in the United States. But maybe that’s not completely true. I once felt a part of things, before I was too young to know that I and my people are different; before Hanukkah of 1965 when my world changed.

I was four and it was the morning of the first day of Hanukkah. I ran out of my house eager to trade notes with my dear childhood neighbor and playmate, Susie McElvaney. “Look what I got! A doll! What did you get for Hanukkah?” I asked Susie, all innocence.

Susie was a bit older than I and wise beyond her years. She explained to me, “We don’t celebrate Hanukkah. We’re not Jewish.”

“NOT JEWISH???” I cried, not understanding.

‘How could it be?’ I thought. Then: ‘How awful! Poor thing.’

I didn’t want Susie to have to dwell on this bit of terrible luck, which I didn’t quite understand, so I changed the subject to be polite.


As a little girl, being Jewish was wrapped up with everything that made me feel cozy and warm: hugs from my parents, delicious chicken soup, the smell of my mother’s perfume in shul, and so much more. Being Jewish was inseparable from being in my sweet little-girl universe. I gained in age and then in wisdom so that the light did finally dawn on me. It seemed that not only was the universe not Jewish, it was not even mostly Jewish.

I became aware that it was I who was other and I suppose a part of me yearned to get back to that primordial time of innocence in which I had thought and felt that all things, all people were one. More and more I dreamt of living in Israel, believing that this was the place where I could realize that existence, that feeling of unity. I did in fact, come to live in Israel, as soon as I decently could, at the age of 18.

But as much as I’d prefer to live in my holy little bubble, Israel too, is not immune to “Americanization” and the festivals of Christendom. Last Thursday, my Israeli boss thanked me for my work and wished me a happy New Year and a better 2013. Stubborn to the core, I answered her as one Jew to another, “Shabbat Shalom.”

About the Author
Varda Epstein is a blogger and Communications Writer for Kars4Kids.org www.kars4kids.org
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