|batyatoon (batyatoon) wrote,|
@ 2007-12-15 06:37 pm UTC
|Entry tags:||judaism, observing the world, serious, sociopolitics|
[Edited To Add: Friend of mine linked to this post, so I'm unlocking it for the benefit of thems as want to follow said link. Be aware that I wrote it with the intention of friendlocking it, so it may not be as tactfully phrased as something I intended to be public.]
I grew up in Seattle in the 1980s, in what at the time was a fairly small Jewish community. My parents both taught at the more traditional of the two Jewish private schools, which my siblings and I attended. It was Orthodox in practice and philosophy, if not necessarily in population; I knew, for instance, that many of my schoolmates didn't keep a kosher home. My nearest Jewish neighbors were about a quarter of a mile away.
I don't know if I can explain the sense of not truly being part of the world you live in. How chance words and phrases on TV or the radio are constant reminders of your otherness -- words like church or Jesus, sure, but also words like McDonalds or marshmallows or Saturday morning cartoons. How none of the characters in the books you read have names like yours or your friends'. It's not something you think about a lot; it's just always there.
And as you've probably noticed even if you don't have the automatic otherness association: this time of year, Christmas gets everywhere. Its associations are so strong and so pervasive that it becomes impossible to separate Christmasness from the sound of tinkling bells, or the colors red and green in combination, or candy canes, or pine trees, or reindeer, or Victorian winter garb, or holly, or log fires, or snowflake patterns. And those images are on everything mass-produced.
One month of the year when absolutely everything says NOT YOURS.
I remember envying the houses that had Christmas lights, and simultaneously being vehemently sure I didn't want to have them on our house. I remember saying wryly to my big brother that we would never see a "Happy Hannukah, Charlie Brown" TV special. I remember being delighted on seeing a rare TV station break wishing its viewers a happy Hannukah, even if they didn't spell it right, or a menorah-and-dreidel decoration at the grocery store, even if it looked a little pathetic next to the real decorations.
If it had come out only a few years sooner, Adam Sandler's song would have delighted me even more. When you feel like the only kid in town without a Christmas tree / Here's a list of people who are Jewish, just like you and me...
But here's the thing.
I don't know whether it's the fact that I now live in New York City, a town that's got more Jews than Jerusalem. Or the fact that I spent two years living in Jerusalem itself, a place where December 25th can come and go entirely unnoticed by most of the population. Or the fact that it's 2007, not 1985, and things have changed. Or the fact that I'm twenty-some years older.
But the acknowledgement of Hannukah around Christmastime has become obligatory, and I don't know that I like it any better than the ignoring of it.
Part of it is that frequently it's perfunctory, an afterthought, and usually a cheap afterthought at that. In the lobby of the building where I work, this month, there is a gorgeous tall evergreen tree decorated in red and gold, with tiny ornamental giftwrapped boxes and gilded pinecones and glossy spheres and strings of tiny lights. And three wreaths, similarly decorated. And potted poinsettias, red and white. And a grand piano moved in for the occasion, with a live pianist at certain hours and a sign above it saying that the holiday music has been sponsored by some company or other. And ... a plug-in menorah in white and blue plastic sitting on the front desk. Sing it with me, kids: one of these things is not like the others.
But here and there I've seen attempts to make the Chanukah decorations as rich and lavish as the Christmas ones, and -- it doesn't work. It's overdone. Because Chanukah is not that major a holiday.
Chanukah is not what we have instead of Christmas. Seriously. It's not that big a deal. And there's another part of the irritation right there: you* don't know a goddamn thing about my holiday. The only reason you're acknowledging it at all is because it comes at the same time as your major holiday. I didn't hear a Happy Sukkot from you back in September and I'm not going to hear a Happy Shavuot from you in June, and if I hear a Happy Passover from you in April it'll only be because it's roughly at the same time as Easter, but you're going to be telling me Happy Hannukah all December even after Chanukah's over. Because what you're really saying is Merry Christmas. You're just changing the words.
* I do not, of course, mean here "you who are reading this now."
And -- okay, I do appreciate that they're changing the words. I do. Because it means an acknowledgment that not everybody in the world is Christian, that not everybody in the world celebrates the same holidays, and (importantly) that it's okay that not everybody in the world is and does. And that's a crucial thing to recognize, and I'm glad of it.
But there we run into the other part of the discomfort, which has to do with taking that too far in the other direction and reaching an attitude of all-embracing inclusiveness that wants to tell us that there's no real difference between our holidays. We use different words, but really we all mean the same thing: it's about light and warmth against the winter's dark and cold, and song against the winter's silence, and family, and togetherness, and love. And those are the things we all share, regardless of what we call ourselves, and in the face of that our differences aren't important at all, and we can all be united in celebration of our shared light and joy. And that's a beautiful thought, isn't it?
Except that that's not what Chanukah is about at all.
Except that what Chanukah commemorates is the Jewish people's successful resistance against the Syrian-Greeks and their attempt to absorb us into their religious and secular culture, first by welcome and then by force. It's about the time we fought a war for the right to study our Torah and practice our laws and throw their gods the hell out of our Temple. The right to say to the dominant culture: we are separate, we are distinct, we are other, and you will not make us like yourselves.
And -- okay, for a lot of people Christmas isn't about the birth of Jesus. And for a lot of people Hannukah isn't about the victory against assimilation. And we commemorate our different holidays in similar ways because we're all human, and we have the urge to make noise and light fires in the depth of winter when it's cold and dark, and when we were first establishing our holiday traditions we did what seemed appropriate. And I guess for those to whom the holiday is just about light and warmth and family and song, there really isn't any significant difference between them.
But it's still ironic -- bitterly so, sometimes -- for this of all our holidays to be the one that is most often combined with the Christian holiday that corresponds to it in the calendar.
I do have more to say, but this was getting too long. More later, maybe.