Eight Nights, More Lights

Photo by Scott via Flickr (Creative Commons)

I would be hard pressed to tell you what I believe in. Integrity, I believe in that. History and science. The value of art. But from a religious perspective, I’ve got next to nothing.

I don’t believe in some great order or plan. I’m not convinced that a Messiah is coming to save us, I don’t care what name you give him.  I figure saving the world is our job and if there is a Messiah who leads us through the sealed gates into a bright new future, those who worked to build that future get to use the VIP line. The rest of us have to stand around wondering where the nearest bathroom is and if the person behind us will hold our place, I’ll get you a soda at the corner gas station too, do you want me to grab you a Snickers bar? You think we’d be inside by now. Wish I’d wasted less time online, done more work for good. What did you do before the apocalypse?

I don’t believe in the literal interpretation of scripture. I don’t think a higher being would deny us crispy bacon or mango shrimp curry or driving on the Sabbath, though I do think a kind god would want us to take a day off. If a god gave us science, that same god gave us Darwin, and Darwin taught us that the species should mix it up to be strong, not that we should confine ourselves to ghettos of our own making. The great religious books are allegorical, I figure, from a time when we didn’t have refrigeration or the internet or air travel so we could meet our global neighbors and learn that we shouldn’t fear them by default.

On this eighth night of Hannukah, I went for a walk just before it got dark. The moon was the tiniest slice of light in the sky. A few houses had menorahs in the windows, blocky electric gadgets with all eight bulbs aglow. It made me happy to see them, like I wasn’t alone in the world. While I don’t necessarily take to the religious trappings of my heritage, I do believe in the messy cohesiveness of The Tribe. I’m not sure it matters if I believe it or not, though, I had my DNA tested this year and I’m 97% Ashkenazi. That messy cohesiveness runs in my veins. (The other bits? Spanish and Yakutsk. Huh.)

Hannukah sweater, 30 bucks at Target. Identity crisis, priceless.

It feels like a political act to be out as Jewish right now, to claim this identity openly.  I had a weird experience with this while wearing a fuzzy blue menorah sweater one evening; a woman kept calling “Hey Jewish girl” at me while I played with my band. Less than 24 hours prior, attackers had firebombed a synagogue in Sweden; I’d read the news about it not long before leaving my house. Imagine this in your head while a stranger shouts “Hey, Jewish girl!” at you.

I suppose I look Jewish, whatever that means. I’ve got the dark hair and the hazel eyes, but I once went to a Persian music concert and everyone there looked like we could be related. I could pass for Lebanese or Greek and I’m sure there are places in Russia where people who are not Jewish look like me. I look white, mostly, so to be out as Jewish creates the opportunity — sure, let’s say opportunity — for people to interact with me differently than they do when they’re sure I am The Same as Them. And by The Same as Them, I mean white and Christian.

Labeling Jews wasn’t invented by the Nazis, it predates the Third Reich by hundreds of years. Jews were required to wear badges in the Islamic world and Europe as early as the 1100s. It’s a tenacious idea, this labeling of the Jews — Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who murdered nine people in a black church in South Carolina, said he wanted us to be blue so people could see what we were up to. No good. Obviously we were up to no good.

For much of my life, I’ve thought that it hasn’t mattered that I’m Jewish, that it in no way changes how I live in the world. Given that my attachment to the religious part of Judaism is tenuous at best, there’s no reason to think I’m any different from the sea of secular Christian-born (or other denomination) humans with whom I share a planet.

But my view has evolved over time. I lived, for a while, in a part of Europe where the Jews had been systematically exterminated.  I’ve traveled to places in the US where there are almost no Jews left. And now, we live in a time where American Nazism is on the rise. Now I think it matters a lot that I’m Jewish. Though it has nothing to do with what I believe — and everything to do with what other people believe. They think I’m different.

Because others think I’m different, I feel an increased responsibility to be out as Jewish. Partly, this is in solidarity with our black and brown citizens, who don’t get to decide how they’re seen. Partly, it’s to break the mystery and stereotyping. I met a Jewish historian in Missouri who told me that some of that region’s antisemitism was because the residents had never met any Jews. Once they had Jewish neighbors, they left their crazy racist ideas behind. (More of that, please.) The young woman calling “Hey Jewish girl” at me later admitted that she’d never met a Jewish person before she moved to Seattle from North Carolina.

A few years back I was in Vienna and I looked out the cafe window to see a guy in his 60s with a yellow star pinned to his coat. I still regret not talking to him, but I also wonder if I didn’t learn everything I needed to know just by noticing him. Austria’s Jews make up less than 1% of that country’s people. (In the US, we’re barely 3%.) His star was an act of defiance, a history lesson, an unassailable claim to his own identity.  I have never seen anything braver than this gray haired character going about his life in modern Vienna with a yellow star pinned to his jacket. He was unafraid to be seen for who he was.

There were Hannukah lights in three houses in my neighborhood. Maybe there are more where — as in my house — the candles burn out of sight from the street. Next year, I will move mine to the windows so others will know I’m here. I like the light I can see. And I want to be part of that.

I believe in light. There’s that, at least.

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45 thoughts on “Eight Nights, More Lights

  1. Hopefully we can all be proud of our own heritage while also harboring a sincere interest and respect for others. Just because someone speaks up for their rights or struggles does not mean yours has to be minimized. See: people getting up in arms about white privilege, thinking it takes away from their accomplishments

    Just thinking out loud. Newcomer to your blog and cherishing each one as an opportunity to think and discuss!

  2. This is a great post. Reminds me of an article I read a few months ago about our place in American politics and allegiance to parties. Basically, it’s that we have no allegiance and neither party really wants us for anything more than a vote.

    • Ain’t that the truth. It’s merely to serve the party, short term, nothing to do with advancing the good of the people. Though I’m not sure it’s party neutral — the GOP’s agenda for the Jewish vote is much more cynical, while the Dems really do support diversity in principal, not just for how it benefits them.

  3. We are all different. No-one is a category. Beliefs, culture and experience should be shared. Since I met my Zoroastrian partner nearly thirty years ago, I am into all things Persian. The Jews and the Persians share so much history.

  4. I’m starting a movement to call myself and others Jewish American. We have Italian- Americans, African-Americans, Irish-Americans. It’s time for U.S. Jewish people to have a broader identity that takes into consideration our citizenship. I’m glad you brought up the DNA factor. More and more, I recognize that I have a Jewish ethnic identity, i.e. it’s in my blood. But I’m not Jewish by religion. I’m a non-theist brought up in the Ethical Culture belief system as much as any other but I don’t affiliate with any organized religion. So I’m a proud Jewish-American woman.

  5. Wow. I’m African and Christan in a country where we are insulted because of ethnicity and belief and we “turn the other cheek” always. Sometimes we even deny our belief to stay alive. You just made me proud of my belief and ethnicity and I’m going to stand by it come what may.

  6. As a Christian boy in the 60s I was raised up in a neighborhood with a Jewish family
    living across the street from us. As I grew up, Mr. Chasse taught me so much about the Jewish faith. My father hated everyone who was not like him. I always like everyone until they give me a reason not to. I had the great opportunity to visit the country of Israel last month. It was go great to learn more about more their faith and their county.

  7. Very eloquent and thoughtful piece. I am Jewish but more so in the sense that is where my roots are and where tradition is strongest. So many years of Jewish day school, Jewish holidays has made my interest in other cultures and ways of life all the stronger. Just had a fascinating conversation yesterday with a Muslim guy here in Sri Lanka about the historic classic similarities between Islam and Judaism. We are way more alike than different.


  8. I’m a Muslim and this made me cry. In the most beautiful way possible. In this age of Islamophobia, Anti-Semitism, Anti-Whatever-they-find-different that’s giving people an identity crisis, an existential crisis- it’s important to claim one’s identity, to stand one’s ground and to proudly wear one’s heritage. You may be a Jew but you’ve just taught me to love, embrace and respect my Islamic faith and heritage even more. And THAT is a living proof that us, humans, can connect to each other on a deeper level than society lets us. This is a living proof of love, respect for other communities and most importantly, coexistence.

    Peace Be Upon You Sister ❤️

    • You’re the future, and thanks to people like you, it’s going to be awesome. These old white guys seeding hate haven’t got a chance against strong hearts like yours. Thank you so much, you made my day. You’re the light, too.

  9. I enjoyed this. I love the difference in people. I am learning to write and blog, and was pleasently surprised by the individuals I am getting to know along the way. Thank you.

  10. Hey Pam, Your anecdote about the Viennese man walking with a yellow star hit me in the gut. What a statement. As a Jewish (by birth, name, schooling, tradition) woman living in a majority Muslim country (though in a tiny Hindu enclave amidst that majority), I don’t have to look far to find the kind of difference – and sameness – that is worth alternately ignoring and discussing. Light to you, this post-Chanukah season, and thanks for sharing.

  11. Thanks for a well written text about being a Jewish.
    I think visibility is important in Sweden the tradition has always been to hide
    any identity that is different from the ordinary. After the war this was a way to integrate into the Swedish society later on it became a way to take precaution.
    To wear the star of David or to wear a Kippa no to mention dress as an ortodox jew became more or less unthinkable in everyday life. On the other hand every Chanukah there is a lightning ceremony every day on the main square in Gothenburg the very same city were the synagogue was attacked.
    Since more than forty years we had a huge immigration from the Middle East and with that we also imported a form of aggressive antisemitism that we did not have before. The three perpetrator that the police arrested for the attack in Gothenburg are from Syria and Palestine. We have also seen an increased violence among them with more than 40 dead this year and about 100 shooting incidents. In reality there are much more shootings since the police only register shootings as shooting when a bullet is found.
    To come out as a Jew in such a climate might require courage or possible madness?
    Still I think this has to change and it is essential that this happen.
    We are always much more than our religion but not showing our beliefs makes us become less real not only for the other but for ourselves. I write this since I am not a Jew myself but considered as one. My grandfathers mother was Jewish and among Swedish people this is enough (old sort of passive aggressive antisemitism)

    • First, Daniel, I was an exchange student in Sweden when I was 16, it was a great experience and I loved my family — we stayed in touch for a very long time afterwards, though I have since lost touch. I still think of them so very fondly.

      This imported antisemitism is nasty stuff, though I continue to hope that all of Islam doesn’t get painted with the same brush just because the perpetrators are from the Arab world. American policy under Bush destabilized the region something terrible, there are so many angry young people without a path to a good life, and how handy, we Jews have always been such a popular target. I am starting to feel some of what it must be like to be a woman in a hijab, abused by ignorant thugs merely for her scarf.

      It does seem scary to be out, but the alternative is to hide, and that is no life either. I have no good answers, but I’m grateful you’ve take the time to read my words and to share your thoughts.

  12. You are no different than many other Jews in America. That is not attending religious services, working on the Sabbath, and eating pork or scavenger fish. Your contact living in Seattle where there is a Jewish population probably insulates you from some of the worst hate. Here in Los Angeles, where there is a large population of Jews, I still had to confront someone just last week about the canard that all Jews are rich. Just stay away from the haters on go live your life as you wish. Happy Hanukah – Happy New Year!

    • Seattle doesn’t exactly have a booming Jewish population, though there are absolutely more Jews here than when I moved here. I hope you didn’t take my claim of different-ness as different from that of other secular Jews, that’s not my intent at all — I’m so aware there are plenty of Jews like me out there, I just don’t *see* them. This woman asked me if we knew each other on sight, and I laughed out loud right away. She was clearly coming from a place of ignorance — not willful ignorance, just a complete lack of information and experience, but come on. Come on. I keep wondering why, if we are all rich, I worry about health insurance costs, but hey, we’re all doctors, too, so I guess it will come out in the wash. Best of the season back atcha, Dan.

  13. Thank you for your words. It’s so important to say it out loud. When we “other” human beings, we cut off the part of ourselves that knows what suffering feels like. We believe because they are something different than me, they cannot feel what I do. We silence what we know in our bodies is pain. When we learn to silence our humanity, we can learn to be silent for atrocities. We need to voice our pain and to listen to the cries of the world.

    • It IS global, you’d think we’d have learned by now, but we just haven’t. And what a thing to have your name be a liability before someone knows the very first thing about you, right? I feel for you. I really do.

  14. This totally resonated with me. I really do identify as Jewish-Catholic, and I see nothing wrong with that. Sometimes I feel more Catholic, and sometimes more Jewish. Like you, I believe in symbolism, and some of it is beautifully written, but it’s been corrupted by people. I also believe in reincarnation, and that there’s no one true religion, just different interpretations of the same concept.

    I can hide behind my name, because it’s 100% French, but my face tells a different story. Especially living in Hungary now. I need to go back and read your other entries, to see where you lived in Eastern Europe. I’d venture a guess if you’re comfortable.

    Funny thing is, I was thinking a lot about this Jewish identity right before I found your blog, and I was looking for something completely different. Ok to link to your article if I have the inspiration for a post?

    • It was Austria, HB, I lived there, no need to guess. You’re very welcome to link/share, please do.

      Religious dentity is personal, so of course there’s nothing wrong with being a mix, it’s your call! Enjoy! I like what I’ve heard about Jewish beliefs in the afterlife — “Let’s worry about that when we get there, okay, we have things that need doing now.” But a whole lot of the world spins its spiritual wheel on the concept of reincarnation and who would I be to tell them they’re wrong?

  15. I’m white and Christian. Despite what the Catholic Church has publicized with its infant baptism, being a Christian is not something you are born into. It’s something you choose. I have always been intrigued by Jewish people and their rich heritage of symbolism and tradition.
    What do you mean by American Nazism? I am not disagreeing with you that it’s present. It may very well be. I just don’t know what it is.

    • I guess I don’t understand the specifics of Christianity, plus, it seems like it’s the default mode for the US. But your point about choice is enlightening and interesting.

      As for American Nazism, it’s pretty easy to find information. I’d rather not any more research in that space, it’s ugly, but you can find them with very little effort if you want to look into it.

  16. Well, I’m going to be 70 years old in two days. Your post brought tears to my eyes as well. I don’t cry very much. I don’t have much to cry about. I’m going to be more out than in next year. I related to everything you wrote…

  17. Wonderfully written!!! And as much as I hate to admit that the psycho Dylann Roof is associated with South Carolina, the church that you speak of was in South Carolina.

  18. Thanks for sharing such personal and thoughtful ideas about being Jewish. I live in a small city in eastern North Carolina which actually has a good amount of diversity because people come here to attend a large university, work in a medical center, or retire in an inexpensive place with a mild climate. Still, it is a challenge to live as a minority in a community and easy to fall back into being secretive about your religious identity, as I do some of the time. One has to question whether it is simply none of their business or it is self-protection.

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