Twas the Shabbat before Chanukah and all through the house, not a creature was stirring not even a mouse, with visions of latkes and Chanukah gelt, we all wished good yontiff cause thats how we felt …
Oh yes, it’s the “holiday season” again. Starting tomorrow night we’ll be eating latkes and donuts and singing insipid, really bad ‘I have a little dreidle” renditions. Now I admit that I was the Chanukah “one-present-every-night-and-a-really-big-one-on-the-last-night kinda mom when my kids were growing up. That was the family tradition in which I was raised, along with numerous tinselly type window decorations and a huge “Happy Hanukkah” banner across the front door. It made me proud to be so visibly Jewish at the most otherwise-invisible-Jewish time of year. New York Chanukahs were joyous, festive, and somewhat Christmasy, to be honest. My mom tried really hard to compete with the secular culture around us, and most years she won. I have very fond memories of those years, and Chanukah with my own kids was always something of a treat. And while I am generally a Christmas Scrooge (I go grocery shopping with earbuds in, which I never do the rest of the year, listening to Israeli music so I don’t get jingle-belled into oblivion) I never really mind if the “holiday spirit” starts creeping into Chanukah.
Why? This week’s parsha begins with the line “Now Jacob was settled in the land where his father had sojourned.” Jacob’s parents were immigrants but Jacob was a native. Jacob’s parents felt nervous about being strangers; they were merely “sojourners.” But Jacob was already a home-born man, and he felt at peace and at one with the place he lived.
So too do we. While my grandparents spoke Yiddish with a little English peppered in, my parents spoke English with a little Yiddish peppered in; and we just speak English unless we throw in a Yiddish world that is already in the English language and used by every ethnic group: chutzpah, shlep. Most of us think the word "bagel" is Yiddish! My parents still had to work hard to assimilate into the society around them, but I don’t have to. I’m totally at home in the secular world and totally at home in Canadian society.
So when Chanukah comes around, and most people around me just assume its the “Jewish Christmas”, I find myself amused rather than angry; its a good sign, its a sign that we Jews are slowly but surely losing our status as “Other”, as strange, exotic non-Christians non-majority. I have to thank living in such a multicultural Toronto filled with Moslems and Hindus and Sikhs also not celebrating Christmas for that push towards sensitivity and inclusion at this holiday-filled time of year.
But, with all that inclusion and comfort level, I still find myself, like Joseph, looking for my brothers and sisters at this time of year. In verse 15 of today’s parsha we find Joseph searching: “When he reached Shechem, a man came upon him wandering in the fields. The man asked him, "What are you looking for?" He answered, "I am looking for my brothers.”
In between the blinking lights and life-size plastic Santas on my street I find myself looking for Menorahs in windows. The tradition of actually putting your Chanukiah in the front window for everyone to see does not come from “competing” with Christmas decorations. It is halacha or Jewish law from earliest days to do so, for “pirsuma de-nisa” meaning it is a mitzvah to “publicize the miracle.” But I think its also kinda cool to publicize that you are a “member of the tribe” at this time of year when its easy to feel overwhelmed and undrerepresented.
And of all the Jewish holidays, Chanukah may be the only one which has no inter-communal religious disputes, like who eats rice and who doesn’t on Passover, or whose kashrut is more kosher, and other than disagreeing on whether or not to put matza meal in your latke recipe, this is one of the most “agreeable festivals” in the Jewish calendar. So its easy to feel “at one” with our Jewish brothers and sisters.
But Chanukah’s main message is unique and cannot be found in any other Jewish holiday: to maintain Jewish religious practice in an open and liberal society that values acculturation. Chanukah is the paradigm of the tension between acculturation and assimilation, and that is always our tension as Canadian Jews at this time of year.
In many ways, the Maccabees were in greater conflict with Hellenizing Jews than with the Greeks. While the arrogant universalism of Hellenism demanded that Jews give up their distinctive religious ways, the multiculturalism of Canada asks nothing like that of us. And because of that, we have our zealots too, in the ultra-Orthodox world, and we have our radical Hellenists, in the secular world. We Reform Jews stand in the middle, and we must bridge the gap.
As Rabbi Yitz Greenberg wrote, “… it is not enough to be stubborn or to ignore the surrounding culture. This tactic works only when Jews are isolated. It was not working in the big cities of Judea in the second century BCE, and it will not likely work well in the highly magnetic culture/society of today….even as they fought the cultural battle, the Maccabees did not simply reject Hellenism. They were profoundly touched by its individualism, its methods of analysis, literary rhetoric, and its theological concepts. They absorbed a great deal, but they gave a distinctively Jewish cast to the outside ideas and rejected many others.
…in general, the Jewish way implies the need and willingness to go into and through many cultures–participating, learning, filtering, incorporating, handling.
Judaism rose to new heights of competence and developed the ability to swim in the sea of Hellenism. The present host culture of Jewry is even more developed, magnetic, and challenging. Jews and Judaism will have to master the field.”
Jessie, I think your family is a good example of those who have mastered the field. Your dad and mom live very Jewish lives and are committed to raising you as a proud—but whats more important— an active Jew. You are a day school student with a deep sense of what it means to do Jewish, not just to be Jewish. This day is such a great simcha not only for your family, whom I have known for ages, but for our shul, because I know you will continue to be on of our Torah readers like your dad. What a great moment to stand here with a family with whom I have so much history—this is the first time at City Shul that I have officiated at the daughter of someone whose mom’s Bat Mitzvah I officiated— at Holy Blossom. Then I officiated at your parents fabulous wedding, and also got to know well and sadly officiate at the funeral of your wonderful and spiritual grandma Jeraldene. For many years your grandfather Lawrence sponsored a memorial lecture at Kolel. I’m so sorry I didn’t get to name you because I was living in Israel at the time, but I did get to name your sisters Kira and Lily. You and me, Jessie, we are tied together for the long run. It’s actually for families like yours that I started this shul.
Now this morning we meet Joseph for the first time in the parsha. Joseph is tied to Chanukah because he had to master the ability to live in two worlds too, when he went into an Egyptian house as its head steward, and when he was given an Egyptian name and took on Egyptian customs. And then when his father Jacob dies, and he responsibly follows all the Jewish customs and laws, even explaining them to the Egyptians so they will respect what he needs to do as a Hebrew. There is no holiday more than Chanukah, I think, that presents us as happy, acculturated Canadian Jews the opportunity to both settle in the land where our fathers and mothers sojourned, and to go into the field to seek our brothers and sisters. Shabbat Shalom, and Happy Chanukah.