I was raised religious in a very yeshivish/mildly chassidish/Hungarian type family in Boro Park. I stayed religious until around age 17, and then I stopped believing, mainly because the cultural ills of the community made me stop believing in Jews, and once I lost my faith in Jews, I lost my faith in the God that chose them. For three years I struggled with faith. I searched for answers, some meaning to life. I constantly debated the existence of God, and found myself alternating between both sides.
At age 20, I found God. Not the god to whom I’d been raised to pay lip service, but God. I came to recognise a God I could love, a God I could talk to, a God I could pray to. I also came to recognize the God I could scream at, swear at, blame for all the wrong in my life. I guess I came to recognise God the therapist, the enigmatic planner, the riddler, the parent, the king. I came to recognise a very complicated God with whom I knew I could forge a complicated relationship that would have its ups and downs, but that would always be true and honest.
But there were still Jews. The same Jews who had made me suffer. The Jews who had created the culture that had stifled my pain for the benefit of their image. I was religious. I had God, and I had a list of rules which told me how to “please” God, but I had lost a people, a national and cultural identity. I tried as hard as I could to erase my Jewish identity. I identified strongly with our history, but I felt ashamed of what we’d become, so I did my best to stamp out as much of it as I could in my life.
I grew my hair out a little, and got a more modern hairstyle. I got rid of my velvet kippah and replaced it with a smaller, more inconspicuous knit one. I worked hard to get rid of my yeshivish accent, and sound like a regular American. It gave me no small pleasure when Jews talking to me on the phone mistook me for a non-Jew, and used ‘Saturday’ instead of ‘Shabbos,’ or ‘holiday’ instead of ‘yom tov.’ It made me feel like I’d finally successfully jettisoned the part of me that was associated with the culture that drove me away from a religion I now loved.
Halacha and rationality keep me tethered to Judaism. They’ve given me a new outlook on Judaism, and a culture that appeals to me because of how contrary to the culture I’d been raised with it is. What makes me a Jew now? Not the shul I go to, or a rebbe I worship, a uniform, or a set of cultural norms to which I adhere. No, now Shabbos makes me a Jew. kashrus makes me a Jew. Tefillin makes me a Jew. Following the law, believing in God, and grappling with my faith makes me a Jew.
But there’s something missing from that kind of Judaism. There’s nothing that marks me as Jewish. Not really, anyway. My kippah is small, black, and knit. My tzitzis are tucked into my pants. There’s nothing about me that screams how proud I am to be a Jew. Except Chanukah. Because on Chanukah, following halacha necessitates a cultural statement. The requirement for pirsumei nisah necessarily makes the statement that I am proud to be a Jew.
When I open my window, and light the menorah for passersby, be they Jewish or not, to see, I am telling the world that I am proud of who and what I am. That I am proud to be part of God’s people. That as much as I complain about my fellow Jews, as much as I feel they still need to change, and as much as I hold them responsible for our social ills, I am still proud to count myself among them. Chanukah forces me to stop hiding behind nomism, behind rationality and the soapbox of my blog, and culturally express my Judaism.
Staring at the flickering candles of the menorah on my windowsill, I can’t help but feel the love, the connection to my people. I can’t help but be proud of what we can and should represent. Chanukah makes me love being a Jew and express it in a way no other holiday can. It may not be the most important holiday on our calendar, but it holds a very special place on mine.