I adore Christmas. The sparkling lights and trees bedecked with glitter and glass bring magical warmth to every space they inhabit. Multicolored garlands and ridiculous inflatable Christmas characters electrify lawns across America. Heartfelt songs of goodwill and giddy anticipation dominate the airwaves, and the surplus of rich, sugary treats ensure most around me are happily comatose for an entire month. It’s gorgeous and gaudy, decadent and delicious. I absolutely love all of it and I want none of it in my home.
Growing up in a Jewish community, my experience of popular holidays included singing “Light a Candle for Eight Nights” and “The Dreidel Song” during our public school’s winter concert. Over the High Holidays, businesses and community organizations closed. And in the weeks leading to Pesach, the chain grocery store filled multiple aisles with traditional foods and hung banners emblazoned with, “We’re Kosher for Passover!” Of course, we had Christmas, too. I knew all the words to “Frosty the Snowman,” and cried at the final scene of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” Still, it wasn’t until about age 9 that I came to the deeply shocking realization that Jews were not, in fact, the majority in America.
My fierce Jewish identity only began to crystallize, however, when I moved 3,000 miles away. Suddenly, I found myself confronted by questions I’d never before had to answer. “You’re Jewish? Are you from Israel?” “What’s Yom Kippur?” “How do Jews celebrate Ash Wednesday?” “Is Rosh Hashanah really two days or are you just taking an extra day off?” “Is Passover Jewish Christmas?” And, my favorite: “Why don’t Jews believe in Jesus?” The concept of “Jewish” morphed from passive individual category to strong and active public identity. I fell into advocating for the miniscule Jewish community nearby, representing Judaism in my place of work, and taking a greater interest in Jewish history, traditions and faith. Being an outsider forced me to think critically about my own deeply personal connection to our people, my responsibility to God, and to my always evolving very Jewish theology. Without the experience of alienation, I may never have escaped a comfort zone which permitted me to largely ignore Judaism as personally relevant.
I am certainly not the first Jew for whom this is true, nor will I be the last. Our people have endured persecution and alienation since the days of the Torah and the challenges of assimilation are not exclusive to the modern era. In this week’s parshah, Joseph, having been sold as a slave, has made a life for himself in Egypt. The Pharaoh has gifted him an Egyptian name and an Egyptian wife. Joseph has prospered, ascending to the rank of vizier. When he is reunited with his brothers, they fail to recognize him and Joseph opts not to reveal his true identity. The divide between Egyptian society and the Israelites is never more clear than when Joseph serves his brothers a meal. “They served him [Joseph] by himself, and them by themselves, and the Egyptians who ate with him by themselves; for the Egyptians could not dine with the Hebrews, since that would be abhorrent to the Egyptians” (Genesis 43:32).
Maintaining an identity that most in your community do not share or necessarily recognize is difficult. Certainly, I have experienced loneliness and frustration. I have felt misunderstood and unfairly targeted as a representative of the entire Jewish world. Anti-Semitic comments have been directed my way. Complete assimilation into the dominant culture would be easier. Slowly, I could allow my Jewish identity to slip into the background. I could laugh away blatantly racist comments, pretending they do not apply. Indeed, there would be tangible benefits to working on the High Holidays, enjoying shrimp cocktail, and inviting my friends to trim a tree and bake sugar cookies in the shape of Santa hats. But for me, being a Jew is undeniable. It is the core of who I am and the strength of my Jewish identity is central to my sense of self. I need the mezuzah on my door. I need to recite the Sh’ma before bed. I need to keep Christmas out of my Jewish home.
Chanukah is not Christmas. It’s not even a particularly important holiday in our tradition. The story of the Maccabees, while righteous beyond measure, isn’t found in our Torah. Chanukah’s prominence in 21st century America is due entirely to its proximity to Christmas. So, I will light the candles, display a menorah in my window, and bake some Star of David shaped cookies. But I will not create a blue and white wonderland in my apartment to approximate the red and green festivities outside my door. I will not participate in the office Secret Santa. I will not sing along to Christmas Carols. I have learned that maintaining a Jewish identity requires intention and effort. Like Joseph, I find myself an outsider in the place where I have achieved much success. Unlike Joseph, I refuse to hide. I’d rather eat alone than sacrifice who I am.
Akiva Yael is an enthusiastic participant in all that is holy, including Torah study, powerlifting, and the beauty of our world.