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.


How Casual Bigotry Causes Violence

Author’s note: The following is a response I wrote to a person with whom I was having a discussion about bigotry against gay people. The conversation was in response to some comments I made about today’s stabbing at the Jerusalem pride parade. I do have a more complete post coming soon, but in the meantime I thought this was worth sharing. 
See, that’s the thing. I don’t know if you’re the kind of person who would actually run after gay people holding hands throwing rocks at them, or if you’re just the kind of person who would laugh at a gay person being called a faggot, but here’s what you need to understand. I’m going to assume you’re just the kind of person who wouldn’t challenge bigotry against gay people if he heard it. There are a lot of you, and I don’t think you’re evil. Just a product of your environment.
Here’s how casual bigotry works. you’re standing around with a group of friends and one of them starts talking about this faggot who was staring at him as he walked down the street. Your friend says how disgusting faggots are and how if he saw the guy again he’d beat the crap out of him. You might laugh, or you might just stand there as everyone else laughs, but you wouldn’t speak up and challenge him even though you would never dream of beating someone up for being gay.
Anyway, a week or so later, this friend of yours is ogled by another gay guy, and that day he was having a bad day anyway, so he decides to let off some steam by bashing the gay guy’s face into the pavement a few times. He comes back to your group of friends, and tells you all what he just did. Some people clap him on the back and congratulate him on a job well done. Some people just laugh. Some, I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you’d be in this group, don’t laugh, and don’t congratulate him, but you wouldn’t necessarily tell him off either. You certainly wouldn’t tell him that you’re never going to talk to him again, and you definitely wouldn’t tell him he should work on liking gay people more. You may tell him it’s a stupid thing to do because it could get him arrested, but you wouldn’t make it about the person he beat, you’d make it about him.
And even if you did protest, you wouldn’t report him to the police. Even if he did it again a month later. Even if he did it again after that two months later. Because the guy he beat was gay, and on some level had it coming. Maybe he “shoved his gayness” in your friend’s face. Maybe he was being too loud about it. Maybe he shouldn’t have looked at your friend. Whatever the reason, you’d find a way to justify not reporting him to the police, no matter how many gay people he beat.
Eventually, you’d probably distance yourself from him if he continued to beat gay people, but that would probably be more out of a distaste for violence than out of concern for gay people.
And it’s not just you. There are a lot of people like this. They don’t hate gay people, per se, but they wouldn’t really stand up to people who do, either.
What that means, is that people who do truly hate gay people, and who truly abuse and discriminate against gay people have a safe haven amongst people like you. They know that while they may eventually lose the friendship of those around them, they’ll never have to worry about being stopped. So even though you may not hate gay people per se, or even give it that much thought, if you’re not confronting the bigotry they experience every time you see it, you’re contributing to the problem. You’re not causing it directly, but you’re letting it happen. You’re fostering an environment in which gay people feel unsafe, and people who hate gay people feel safe. You should never want to be a part of something like that.