Here’s my submission for Jewish Perseverance Week.
My family are Sefardi and even though our tradition is to just light one menorah per family, this little thing always manages to put in an appearance anyway.
Five years ago, I was walking home from work when I was stopped by a rabbi and his wife. I was confused because we don’t have many Jews here and nobody is too open about it if they are. “Excuse me, are you Jewish?”
I shrugged. My mother’s family were Jewish but my last real contact with Judaism died with my grandparents. What was left of my Jewish identity was comprised of a few linguistic and cultural quirks, antisemitic neighbours who hated us, and the very occasional contact with observant family who live in other countries.
I settled on “I’m a little bit Jewish?” He said it’s like being a little bit pregnant – you can’t be. I reluctantly told him a little about my family.
It wasn’t that I didn’t want to talk to a stranger. It was that I was uncomfortable being around proper Jews again having severed my ties so completely. I was frustrated at being viewed with suspicion and excluded from the small slivers of Jewish life which exist here. I’d spent years ignoring my heritage because I wasn’t frum enough for the few Orthodox people I’d met along the way and I wasn’t Ashkenazi enough even for the Reform people I knew. I wasn’t a “proper Jew”.
It felt like I was missing out on a huge aspect of my cultural inheritance and I’d even started to let Christian friends take me to church in an attempt to patch that hole. I quietly resented them for believing that they had “saved” this Jew who needed Christ, but at least they seemed to want me around. I went to church practically daily for a while, but that didn’t last for long. Nothing about that felt right.
And then, as I was trudging home after a truly awful day, a rabbi and his wife appeared. I was genuinely shocked by their inclusivity. Suddenly proper Jews were insisting that I still had a place. They seemed mildly amused by my assumption that I didn’t count and even invited me to dinner as though I was one of them.
They asked if I would take a hanukiyah home and showed me the blessings written on the box. I told them I’d forgotten how to read Hebrew but they still weren’t deterred. They gave me literature in English, in Hebrew, in transliterated Hebrew. They even offered to find me some in French for the rest of the family. Whatever I needed to know, they explained. They didn’t judge me and they didn’t even patronise me. I’d expected to be admonished but it felt more like being welcomed home. I left with a hanukiyah, a rainforest’s worth of paper and a bemused expression.
I let my mother light the candles and was surprised to hear Hebrew flow so naturally for the first time in probably a decade. We left the menorah out well beyond Hanukkah, I think we were just enjoying having something Jewish around.
After that, little things started to happen at home. Candles came out one Friday night… and then the next one… and the next… Nobody even mentioned it, it just happened. After a while, it was just what we did. Bread was replaced with matza on Pesach. “Shana tova, do you want to help make baklava?” “I think it’s Yom Kippur tomorrow, should I still cook for everybody or…?”
By next Chanukah, the family menorah was brought down from the loft and unwrapped from its dust cover. Somebody played Ocho Kandelikas and it was the first time I’d heard Ladino since my grandmother died. Somehow, somewhere along the way, we’d stopped being “a little bit Jewish”. We’re just Jews.
I love Hanukkah. I don’t care for people telling me it’s a “minor holiday” when it marks the end of my family’s weird, extended rumschpringe. Not only that, but it reminds me of what our community should be. I’ve experienced so much elitism, suspicion and exclusion from fellow Jews that I didn’t even think I was Jewish. I’ve experienced so much antisemitism from goyim that I wasn’t sure I even wanted to be.
And then I experienced an act of kindness from a couple on the street and my life changed.
This time five years ago, a Jewish couple gave me a hanukiyah. The exchange lasted less than 10 minutes but in that time they returned to me my family, my people, my culture, my history, my faith. And if I go to synagogue and lose my place in the siddur 10 times, that’s ok now. If I still occasionally say kaddish when I mean kiddush, I’ll laugh about it and the world won’t end.
My wish for all of you is that you can feel as assured of your place and as welcomed by your people as I do now, regardless of your knowledge, background, or level of observance. I hope you get to enjoy the culture you inherit and know that you belong.
I wish you all a wonderful Hanukkah.
Well, I’m crying now.
me too help