I am writing to you somewhere within the American diaspora. In a few weeks, my husband and I will be taking our children and our parents on our first family trip to Israel. When we get there, I hope that the Israelis we meet there don’t think that we are devoid of any Judaism or Jewish life back in evil America.
Let me explain. I just viewed some commercials made by the Israeli government warning them of the risk of assimilation, of losing their Jewish identity if they move to and remain in America. The Jewish Federations of America, along with most American Jews, took offense.
A lot of controversy has been stirred by this ad campaign trying to lure Israelis living in America to come back home to Israel if they want their own children to remain Jewish.
To those of you not familiar with it, here is an example of such an ad. Basically, an Israeli grandma and Grandpa in Israel are skyping with their family in America. The grandparents, seated in a living room with a lit Chanukkiah (candles for chanukkah, it’s NOT a menorah) in the background, ask their granddaughter what holiday she is celebrating. She joyfully shouts (to her parents’ dismay) “Christmas!”
(this ad has been removed as I write this post)
Here is what I know, good and bad, about Jewish life in America and Jewish life in Israel.
- Israel, you have no better friends in the world than the Jews of America.
- I am involved with the Partnership2Gether program in my city. Each time we are visited by our Israeli counterparts, friendships are forged and dialogues begin about Jewish identity on both sides of the sea.
- The Israelis making their first visit to America greatly admire how hard American Jews have to work to maintain our Jewish ties. Yes, we are pulled in many directions trying to balance secular commitments with the religious. But yes, we enjoy the freedom we have of making our own choices.
- The Israelis who came here greatly admire the role of women in synagogue life. Some of them for the first time saw women serving as rabbis. Some of them for the first time had the honor of being called to the Torah for an aliyah.
- Israelis who visited America expressed their disgust with extremist religious strains that take an “all or nothing” approach to observing mitzvot to the point that rather than trying to observe Judaism to their own comfort level, they have abandoned any Jewish practice at all.
- Yes, some of my middle-school aged Hebrew school students are from intermarriages. And many of them struggle with their identity, especially in December. But we have to respect that non-Jewish parents who love their children made the hard choice and the sacrifice to raise their child in a religion that is not their own. It is a choice they believe in and many try to learn about Judaism right along with their children.
- My students ask if they are a “bad Jew” if their family doesn’t light Shabbat candles every Friday night. They ask if they are a bad Jew if they help their non-Jewish parent set up Christmas lights. What can I possibly tell them? I can’t. All I can teach them are the tools and the mechanics of Hebrew language and the religion. It is up to the individual parents and families to apply or not apply, these teachings in the privacy of their homes.
- Am I a bad Jew if I find myself this time of year humming a Christmas tune? Not really, as Christmas permeates every facet of American culture between October 31 and December 25. For impressionable Jewish American children, it is all the more impossible to ignore. I teach my students and my own children that it is okay to admire the lights and decorations, but know it is not our holiday.
Bibi, I’ll be in Israel all of Chanukkah. Why don’t fly over to the states and spend your Chanukkah in America and see how hard Jewish Americans work to say “no, Christmas is not our holiday. In spite of being a minority, we choose to worship our God and practice our religion the way we choose.”
Isn’t that after all the message of Chanukkah?
“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.
Growing up in a predominantly Italian neighborhood in Staten Island, as the Chanukkah song from Adam Sandler song goes, I was the only kid on the block without a Christmas tree. Our neighbors invited my family over for cake and tree decorating and we in turn invited them on Chanukkah to light our menorah, spin a dreidel and eat fried potato latkes.
Even back then I understood that Christmas was a big holiday, and Chanukkah was a minor Jewish one. But Christmas trees still left me with a feeling of being on the outside, my nose pressed to the frosted window.
A menorah, no matter how big, even the ones that the Chabad Lubavich movement lights, just can’t compete with the smell of fresh pine, the twinkling lights and the tinsel to a Jewish kid on Staten Island. I even had my secret Christmas tree fantasies. If I ever had a Christmas tree, it would be simple: just candy canes and white lights would hang off the branches of the Christmas tree of my dreams. And it would only be in my dreams, because I knew very well that there is no such thing as a Chanukkah bush.
I did have childhood associations with Sukkot, the eight-day autumn festival of Booths, because of Hebrew school. I made the standard paper sukkah chains and ate within the large sukkah of my synagogue. In fact, the first time I was ever asked on a date was in a sukkah. It was in the seventh grade and a classmate asked me to go roller skating at Skate Odyesy as our teacher, on Orthodox rabbi, continually shushed us as he attempted to recite kiddush, the blessing over the grape juice.
But because my family didn’t build a sukkah of our own, the holiday still felt remote to me. I didn’t have a sukkah to eat my bowl of breakfast cereal in, or sleep in.
Now, in adulthood, my family enjoys putting up a sukkah every autmn, and we have done so for eleven years. And because we have a family sukkah, I can now say why this celebration, one of the major holidays on the Jewish calendar, blows that overblown attention we give to that other holiday in December right out of the water. Why? Because a sukkah fulfills the Jewish Americans’ need to decorate a large, religious object with branches and lights and have social gatherings within or around it.
Sukkot is known in Hebrew as one of the “three legs” of Jewish holidays, one of the three times of the year when the ancient Israelites were commanded to make a pilgrimage by foot to Jerusalem. Imagine Israelites building one of these temporary huts and sleeping in their fields under a harvest moon.
This same harvest moon shines through the roof of our family sukkah on the first few nights as we feast and sing. After a month of self scrutiny, asking for forgiveness, and finally, fasting on Yom Kippur, sitting within the walls of a sukkah is like getting a hug from God and feeling His forgiveness, as one Chabad rabbi in my college years so eloquently explained it.
In my neighborhood, Sukkot is all around us. As we are finishing up our meal of brisket and sweet potatoes, our neighbor, an Orthodox rabbi, is starting his meal with his family within their sukkah. We can hear his voice as he joyfully sings the kiddush as we clear off our table. This is followed by the clanking of plates and the laughter of his grandchildren as they dine. This coming outside to eat, either in these formal meals or sukkah hopping later in the week may be the last chance we get before the long Rochester winter, makes our neighborhood just feel more neighborly.
How is a sukkah not like a Christmas tree? For one thing, Jews are commanded by God in Torah to build one to remind us of the booths that the Israelites lived in during their wandering in the desert after we were freed from Egypt. Plain and simple, it’s a mitzvah just to sit in a sukkah. I still don’t understand if there is a religious connection between a tree and the birth of Jesus, but I’d be happy to learn how this tradition got started.
So, now that it is December, I still admire Christmas trees, but with a knowledge and experience that the Jewish people have our time of year for our big celebrations with something to decorate and gather in. Come this Christmas, don’t feel bad for the Jewish people who have no Christmas tree. Instead, feel bad for the Jewish people who have not yet built, or ate, or slept, or dwelt in a Sukkah, back in September.