Chanukah Brings Out the Jew in Me

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.

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How Rosh Hashana Returned Me to My Culture

Author’s note: This started as a post I started writing in the Project Makom Facebook group, but I felt it deserved to be shared with a wider audience. I am deeply grateful to all of the organizers of this shabbaton, and to all of the people who make Project Makom possible. 

So a bit of thanks and a bit of confession. Firstly, thank you so much to Mindy, Yoel, and Shlomo. Rosh Hashana was incredible, and by far the most meaningful I’ve ever experienced. Thank you so much to everyone who came; it was great meeting all of you. Thank you for putting up with me, even if (and especially when) I was shouting my opinions at everyone.

Now for confession. I’ve always had a big problem with the cultural aspects of Jewish life. I love the ideology, and I’ve come to love God, and through loving God I’ve come to relate to the Torah and halacha, but the cultural aspects of Jewish observance have always made me feel somewhere between uncomfortable and repulsed. For example, zemiros on shabbos or yom tov make me want to be anywhere else but the table at which I’m sitting. Singing in shul makes me wish I hadn’t gone. Making a yehi ratzon on the symbolic Rosh Hashana foods make me feel stupid. It’s not because I’m some hyper-rationalist who thinks that religious practices based more on emotion and spirituality are less valid than logical legalism.

From age 11 onward, cultural religious expression in my family meant that life was about to get very dangerous, or at the very least very bizarre. Before age 11, when my grandfather was still alive, cultural religious expression was beautiful. Kiddush was soulful, zemiros were emotional, prayer in the home was inspirational. After he died, everything changed. He was no longer the family’s cultural spiritual leader, so to speak. That fell to my grandmother. She tried for a year or so, but we missed my grandfather, and as hard as she tried, she could never step into his shoes. Eventually she gave up. The zemiros stopped. The prayer stopped. Kiddush was mumbled. Shabbos meals were a family obligation rather than a blessed opportunity to bond. Religion became entirely ideological in practice; we lost the cultural, spiritual, hard to quantify but oh so real aspects of our family religious observance.

Which was fine. I had nothing against cultural religious expression, it just wasn’t something we did anymore at home.

But it wasn’t so simple. My mother had bipolar disorder, and mental illness has a funny way of manifesting in religious observance. When my mother was irreligious, it meant she was stable. Hearing the TV on shabbos, while heartbreaking and disgusting to a child raised to believe that religious Judaism is the only valid way to live life, meant that she was on her meds. It was when she was being frum that things got scary.

See, when she was stable, she knew that God didn’t care about her. She knew that God didn’t matter, and that being religious is for superstitious idiots or people graced with such privilege they’ve never had to wonder why God can be such a bastard while claiming to be benevolent. But when she was off her meds, she was just crazy enough to think God actually cared, to think that if she put on enough of a show, God might actually give her what she wanted. But things had to be just so, because God doesn’t stop being a tyrant just because you start listening. Everything had to be perfect for God to be impressed enough to give her what she wanted.

So if she was lighting candles, I had to stand there in silent contemplation. If she was singing zemiros, I had to either join or sit silently. If she was praying, I had to listen intently. If she was covering her hair, I had to dress as though I was standing before the King of Kings. Because the show had to be perfect if God was to be entertained enough to bestow God’s beneficence. And God help me if the show wasn’t perfect.

I came to hate all of it. Even after I stopped hating God. I still hated all of those little acts I’d been forced to put on. Even after I started loving God again, I was never able to bring myself to express that love the way everyone else finds so natural, but to me feels dangerous. I stopped singing in shul. I sat silently at the shabbos tables of my friends. I made excuses why I wasn’t singing when people pressed me to participate. I’d hurry through public expressions of religion as though I was ashamed of it, when really I was never ashamed of it, but terrified of it.

Somehow, though, that was different this Rosh Hashana. I don’t know what it was, but I felt safe, comfortable, and accepted enough, to dip my toe in the water again, and join in not only the legal, halachic observances of Judaism, but the cultural and spiritual observances and expressions of Judaism as well. And it was ok. It was scary as all hell, but it was ok. Nothing happened. It felt ok. Like I was finding something I’d lost and come to fear. And I know it’s weird, and a little off putting to attach this kind of serious significance to something as casual and lighthearted as a friendly roadtrip to Atlanta for Rosh Hashana, but in a sense this marks a milestone in my life, where I can say that a part of my religion has finally been unlocked for me – a part I’ve really missed.

And now we’re back to thanks. Thank you all for being a part of that, even if you didn’t know it was happening. Thank you all for being the ones who were there to share this experience with me, even if I was the only one to experience it. You’re all very special people and, I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to thank you for being a part of changing my life.

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