|“I was reading that book on Jewish history that you gave me,” said a young woman who recently converted to Judaism, “and there is something I just have to ask you. Since at one time or another Jews were expelled from nearly every country in Europe, and with the Holocaust only happening 50 years ago, and with nearly the whole world constantly attacking Israel as if it were an oppressive, racist “occupying” power, what kind of effect has all that had on how Jews see themselves and the world around them?” Now that was a sobering question.
So it got me thinking once again about what it does mean to be a Jew living in a non-Jewish world. It reminded me of all the times I have been told by potential converts to Judaism that their friends and family have warned them that if they become Jewish they might suddenly become a target of anti-Semites, neo-Nazis, skinheads and a host of other hostile anti-Jewish groups that continue to preach hatred and poison within our society.
And yet thousands of non-Jews continue to choose to adopt Judaism as their religion and the Jewish people as their people each and every year. And yet millions of Jews of all ages and backgrounds continue to speak with pride of their Jewish heritage and traditions, study in Jewish studies programs throughout the world, subscribe to Jewish periodicals, write Jewish music, plays, and books, join synagogues of every persuasion and contribute in innumerable ways to the most dynamic and creative epoch in the entire 4,000 year history of Jewish civilization.
Jewish pride is as strong as ever. Jewish commitment is as powerful as ever. Jews continue to seek ways to find meaning, purpose and a sense of holiness in their lives through participation in Jewish rituals, customs, holidays and traditions. And Kehillat Israel continues to grow each year – this year already reaching over 1,000 households.
Yet the reality of Jewish life is a mixed blessing, and many Jews suffer from a kind of spiritual ambivalence, especially at powerful in-your-face holiday seasons such as this one. Every time a small Jewish child turns to a friend and asks, “Are you Hanukah or Christmas?” the ambivalence is real. Every time a Jewish parent (or non-Jewish parent raising Jewish kids) pauses in front of a Santa Claus in the mall and wonders if it is the right thing to do to have her Jewish child hop up on Santa’s lap, the ambivalence is real.
The reality is we live in multiple civilizations at the same time – Jewish and American, Hanukah and Christmas, and learning to balance the emotional demands of American culture with the spiritual obligations of Jewish civilization is both the challenge and opportunity of living as a Jew in America.
Because this is a season filled with emotional ambivalences it also contains the profound opportunity to experience deep pride in who we are. In this age of increasing fundamentalisms where we may feel under attack both as Jews and as Americans, every Jewish holiday including Hanukah becomes an opportunity to celebrate the age-old struggle for religious freedom of which Jews have always been in the forefront. The defeat of Antiochus in 165 BCE by the Maccabees and his dream of wiping out Judaism forever, has been echoed in every tragedy and triumph of the Jewish people ever since. As we celebrate this year, let it serve as a reminder of our responsibility to fight for religious freedom for all – Jews and Muslims, Christians and Hindus, rejecting the “them vs. us” mentality of others and serve as the role models for communal healing that is our legacy and our challenge.