A Small Chanukkah Miracle at Checkout Aisle Number Eight
“Are you doing anything special this Hanukkah?”
I guess Steve the check-out cashier figured out I was Jewish. After all, from my grocery cart, I unloaded a bag of potatoes, onions, some Chanukkah napkins, blue and white M&Ms and a box of beeswax candles.
“Not much,” I replied. “Just going to my son’s band concert tonight, and then down to New York City for a family occasion.” I didn’t want to say it was for a Bat Mitzvah. That’s just too complicated if you don’t know what a Bat Mitzvah is.
“Ooooh, New York City! That’s where they seriously get into Chanukkah! I mean, the big menorah displays, and the food — the matzah ball soup! Even in the diners, they make French toast out of challah down in New York City,” he went on.
Now, you don’t have to be Jewish to love matzah ball soup or challah French toast. And, I am pretty sure, you can get challah French toast up here in Rochester.
But the sentimentality in his voice towards matzah ball soup, the way he so dreamily spoke of the menorahs as he scanned my clementines and sweet Mayan onions, I had to ask:
“Um, are you Jewish?”
Now, this is not a question I would ask a complete stranger. But around this time of year, when the enormity of Christmas seeps into every crevice of the American landscape, Jews have this desire to connect to one other, to stick together. Judaism as a topic of conversation is a subject that would be avoided by the most disenfranchised, unaffiliated Jew for most of the year. But talking about one’s Jewish identity in the face of Christmastime, is, like a plate of freshly fried potato latkes, on the table and up for grabs.
At any other time of year, a suburban housewife and a 20something college kid working in a grocery store wouldn’t openly discuss being Jewish. But that night, right before the lighting of the first Chanukkah candle, amidst the Christmas Muzak playing and the Christmas tree displays twinkling, it felt like the right time.
As he carefully bagged my groceries with the expertise only possessed by a Wegmans employee, Steven continued to tell me his plans for the Festival of Lights.
“Yeah, there’s this Chanukkah celebration thing going on at the University of Rochester tonight. From – you know – Hillel? I think I might check it out. I haven’t gone to many Hillel events, but I think I should check it out.”
“Good for you!” I replied. This did my heart good. I told him that I worked for the Hillel – the organization that supports Jewish life on college campuses around the world – a number of years back. With so many negative statistics out there pointing out the demise of Jewish practice among today’s young American Jews, Steven telling me of his plans to do something Jewish, to be with other Jews that night, just made me feel all warm inside.
Chanukkah is such a small holiday in importance on the Jewish calendar. But it celebrates something so big – the world’s first fight for religious freedom. It was the first time a people – though meek and small – said NO to an occupying power. Judah Maccabee and his brothers were the first who had the chutzpah — the balls, if you will — to say, NO! We will not stop being Jewish. We will not stop teaching our children how to be Jewish. You can put up statues of your idols, you can outlaw Jewish practice, you can threaten us, but we will survive.
And survive we did, and we have, in spite of history. And in spite of the dreary outlook for the American Jewish landscape, Steven, the college kid who worked at Wegmans, was going to go out of his way to celebrate Chanukkah, to celebrate being Jewish.
Happy Chanukkah to Steven and to all who celebrate freedom.