It’s the season of lights.
Lights on houses, lights on trees. Lights on Chanukah candles.
My friend the Anti-Poverty Organizer and I often spend at least part of Chanukah together. I love how solemnly she lights the menorah, and how irreverent she is about ritual. How she likes to mix things up and enjoys nothing better than to help me decorate my Christmas tree, irony minging with delight.
I’m not Jewish, but I grew up with knishes, latkes, kasha, borscht, chicken soup, gefilte fish, rugaleh, challah, and Ukrainian colloquialisms identical to Yiddish, like shmata and tshotscke. We share culture and history with the Jews, in complex and unequal ways. My love of so many things Jewish is mixed with the shame I feel for the anti-Semitism embedded in the history of my culture. I see myself as an ally, not a wannabee. Still, at this time of year, when I put up a Happy Hanukah banner at my workplace in reaction to the huge Christmas tree; when I travel miles to the Jewish neighbourhood to search for knishes; when I clip latke recipes out of paper and magazines…The Anti-Poverty organizer sighs ruefully: You. Are. Such. A. Wannabee. she says.
It gets worse. When taxi drivers and store clerks wish me Merry Christmas, I respond by telling them I’m Jewish. I do it so they’ll think twice about the rigid hegemony of the season. But it just makes The Anti-Poverty Organizer roll her eyes.
And here’s another thing. When I was a kid, my family used to celebrate Christmas on January 6, according to an older (way older) Julian calendar. December 25 would find us watching TV, eating Chinese food, going to movies. And trying to avoid people who would wish us Merry Christmas. Sound familiar?
But the love of light…It’s universal. From my dour Portuguese neighbour who installs a whimsical lit-up fairyland of deer, Santas and elves in his front yard, to my Jewish colleague who has strung Christmas lights all along the bookshelves of his office…we are all of us turning towards the light.
Happy first day of Chanukah.