Saturday, December 7, 2013

Parashat Vayigash – Post-Thanksgivikuh Blues

            Shabbat Shalom! I hope everyone had a lovely Thanksgiving and a joyous Chanukah. I know I did! I was able to be home with my family for Thanksgiving and the first four nights of Chanukah, I spent the fifth night with the Youth Group, and even last night, the honorary or unofficial tenth night of Chanukah, I got to be here with many of you, lighting candles and eating latkes. But now, Chanukah is really over. And yet, the “holiday season” is just beginning.
            There are many debates, arguments, tensions, as well as joys that surround the “holiday season” that will either be especially clear or completely non-existent this year. Will people stop worrying about being P.C. and just say “Merry Christmas” all December, since Chanukah is over? Of course, that leaves out Kwanzaa and Solstice and possibly other holidays I don’t even know about this time of year, so we can probably still count on hearing “Happy Holidays” even though ours is over. That’s ok, though, being wished happy for a holiday you don’t celebrate doesn’t have to be offensive. You still want to be happy that day, don’t you? What about towns that have compensated for the Jews feeling disgruntled about the town Christmas tree by putting up a town menorah? Did they put them up on time or will they put them up with the Christmas trees? Will store windows have menorahs and dreidels up in their “winter decorations” all through the “holiday shopping season”?
            Of course, none of this really matters. The way both Chanukah and Christmas have become celebrated and somehow parallel in the celebrations is mostly about commercialism, which is also not necessarily bad. Getting and giving presents are fun! Chanukah decorations are cute! Christmas trees are pretty! But none of those things really get to the essence of the holidays, and it really shouldn’t matter so much how our non-Jewish neighbors address this “holiday season” in our post-Chanukah December. If they do try to act like the holidays overlap this year as they often do, it’s nice to feel included. If they don’t, we know we already had our lovely Chanukah celebrations and gave our gifts, so who cares?
            But for me, these questions really get back to the big question that is always at the forefront of identity making for me: Am I an American Jew or a Jewish American? Which parts about American culture speak to me as a Jew and which don’t? Which parts of Jewish culture make me feel different from other Americans and which don’t?  The American ideal is often referred to as a “melting pot,” but that’s no good, because it requires us to all melt together and be the same. The beauty of America is that we end up more like a cholent, a stew, a chili. We blend together, lose some of our original form, but basically keep our shape, remain distinct. The United States allows American Jews or Jewish Americans to choose where to put their emphasis. You are an embraced part of the American culture, but if you’d rather feel “more Jewish” than “American” – whatever that means to you – that’s ok, too. And yet, American culture does have a fairly strong Christian influence. Despite our forefathers’ quest for religious freedom and their own humanist leanings, many people have tried to shift politics in a Christian direction, declared this a “Christian nation,” and insist that wishing someone a “happy holiday” is a direct attack on Christmas and an affront to this country. It’s hard sometimes to navigate those sorts of discussions as an American Jew or a Jewish American.
            In this week’s Torah portion, Joseph has reached his position of power in Egypt. By the end of the portion, it says, “And Israel dwelt in the land of Egypt in the land of Goshen, and they acquired property in it, and they were prolific and multiplied greatly.” We learn from many places that “We were strangers in the land of Egypt,” and it calls to mind the years of slavery. But first, we were welcomed strangers. It’s not a perfect metaphor for the “holiday season” in American culture, because we really don’t like to think of ourselves as strangers at all in the United States, and because, you know, what happens next in Egypt is not going to happen to us here. We are equal citizens, and everyone has the same rights and privileges and protections, and Jews as a people have been here almost as long as the Christians. But we always were and still are a very small minority. In New York, and especially in Brooklyn, we live in a relatively dense Jewish population, and we’re still in the minority. To some degree, being a minority will always leave us somewhat on the outside, because to some degree, majority rules. That’s democracy, that’s capitalism, that’s life. The group with the most numbers and the loudest voices control the situation. As long as we’re welcomed strangers, I say we enjoy this “holiday season” as outsiders. Although many of us may still have Christmas plans with friends and family, there’s a certain level of peace to know that our holiday, the one we really have to prepare for, is over. For the most part, we can just sit back and enjoy Christmas carols and sales, without worrying about the big family celebratory dinner menu and did we remember to buy enough candles this year, amid all the shopping madness. And may we all simply have a happy December.

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