Am I a Bad Jew? An open letter to Benjamin Netanyahu
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?
I don’t really think that you have to “work” to say no to Christmas. Children and young adults tend to view holidays ( the word itself being an arcane variation of “holy day”) as mere opportunities to be given gifts and to be part of a larger cultural celebration. The desire to engage in festivities is usually nothing more than a longing to be “one of the crowd”, and does not stem from any latent desire to engage in any particular religious rite.
If it makes you feel any better, most Christian holidays exist due to the purposeful co-opting of previously existing pagan holy days. As history recounts, Jesus could never have been born in December, and the prominent eggs of Easter elude to a fertility celebration, and not to a furry white rodent who happens to gift chocolate confections out of his magical basket. Creepy.
All this to say: Celebrate Festivus. I will meet you at the unadorned, industrial pole for the Airing of Grievances. 🙂