A new friend of mine, here in Winnipeg asked me, “what do you do for Hannukah” – It was a text message on my phone and I knew there was no way I could answer it by text, because it’s not a short answer. It never is with me.
I mean, the basics? I could find some local store where I could get a menorah (technically, it’s called a Hannukiah), and some candles for it, I could light them, I could fry up some latkes, eat a doughnut, - that pretty much covers the traditions unless you have a dreidel and someone to spin it with, but that’s more of a kid thing (though I’m sure it’d make a good drinking game if you were into that).
I own a Hannukiah but it is in Berlin, where I lit the candles last year. I was supposed to be there now, on tour. My friend, whose home it got left at, sent me a photo of it, and that made me smile.
I like light. I like candles. I like fried food. So…why don’t I do it? Or why DO I do it sometimes? Why am I always so conflicted about it? To be clear, if I was hanging out with other Jewish people, then of course, I’d be celebrating it, but that’s true for any holiday being celebrated by any people I’d be hanging out with. So the question is more, if I’m alone, or not around other Jewish people, do I bother?
When I lived in Montreal, I had friends over. I made latkes for everyone. I lit the candles. I never knew if to sing the blessings or not. I wanted to celebrate with friends, but it felt performative. Educational. It made me uneasy. But not doing it felt unhospitable. I mean, I have this culture with delicious traditions and beautiful music to share with people. This year of course, that’s not even an option.
Travelling around solo for a decade in communities that are predominantly not celebrating the holidays of my upbringing has meant I often just skip right over them. If there isn’t anyone to celebrate with, what’s the point?
I’ll confess there’s a modicum of loneliness that comes with skipping over holidays. Missing my family. And one of the things that’s always missing is kids. They bring out the glow of every holiday. I miss being a school-teacher for that, seeing the kiddos’ excitement.
But Hannukah in particular gets me going on one particular tenet. An important tenet. We are supposed to, according to tradition, put the candles near a window, so that the outside world can see the lights.
Sounds beautiful, right? Sharing light with the world?
Except – it’s also saying, “Jews live here.” – and in the various places I’ve lived, I’ve never known if it’s a good idea. The views on this are as diverse as the people celebrating the holiday. For some it’s a way of displaying pride in the survival against all odds. “I’ll put this in the window because there were times this would have gotten us deported and killed.” I have thought this, and done this. Celebrating the holiday in Germany meant the world to me. Celebrating the relative safety of my times. Being grateful for that. But obviously, there has been a definite darkening of “my times” and my safety gauge about these matters is not what it was six or seven years ago. For some it’s just a cultural pride in general – displaying diversity, displaying existence in a mosaic of other cultures, through the window for all to see. That’s fair enough, but I’m not proud of my culture per se. I enjoy many aspects of it, but pride is not the right word for me. It’s just another culture among many other beautiful cultures. It’s got beautiful traditions and a complicated history filled with trauma. In fact, the majority of the Jewish holidays commemorate some historical event where someone in charge wanted to violently get rid of Jews, but somehow we survived and still exist today. Amen. Personally, I find it an exhausting motif, even though it is historically accurate, it just doesn’t feel like much of a survival given the ongoing hatred everywhere. It’s been steadily increasing in terrifying ways, through the rise of conspiracy theories that employ old antisemitic tropes. It’s devastating to see that, and see how fast it’s growing globally. Nazis marching around North America - synagogue shootings, Jewish businesses desecrated... How safe am I or my loved ones, really, to display our Jewishness, these days?
Maybe all times are dark and we shine our little light as hard as we can all year round, and that’s what I do metaphorically, so maybe I celebrate Hanukkah every day of every year because I am here, surviving. I’m surviving as a person, I’m surviving as a Jew. So far so good. Terrifying experience, but here I am. Could be better, could be worse.
Maybe I think there’s no point in putting the candles by the window if people don’t know the meaning, the story that’s being celebrated (a tiny rebellion that had no chance of winning against oppression but somehow was successful – and according to the religious, that’s thanks to God’s miracles)…
I don’t know. Maybe the fact that nobody knows anyway means all they would “see” is just some ornate candelabra. Maybe I should stop thinking so much and just do it because it is just an addition of light in the world.
I have no great conclusion here. But I do know this: Diversity should be celebrated, cultures should thrive in the beauty of their traditions, and lights should be illuminated, especially in times of darkness.
And I know this too, late last night, I made myself a few latkes. Out of one potato. Party of one. I couldn’t help it. My soul still wants to celebrate and commemorate, even when my mind is in a constant state of question. And latkes are a lot of work, so – maybe it’s just nice to enjoy the deliciousness of it, which I really have no drive to cook up the rest of the year. Yes, they came out perfect. I make a mean latke!
So from my soul to yours, Happy Hannukah. We have work to do, individually and collectively, to make this world brighter. Let’s do it.