Hanukkah is early on this year’s Jewish calendar, but it can not come fast enough. At a time that Jews are dangerously divided, the eight day Festival of Lights — which celebrates the the “miraculous” lighting of the Second Temple’s menorah, after the successful Jewish rebellion against the Assyrians — encourages unity, by being the one holiday almost all of us celebrate in the same way.
American Jews have long had angry debates about religion and politics: the role of women in synagogue, intermarriage, Zionism, Kosher laws, what is and isn’t good for the Jews.
Our contentiousness reflects our cultural, ethnic, and religious diversity. There are Sephardim, Ashkenazi, Bukharan, Mizrahi Jews, and Jews of color. We worship as Conservative, Orthodox, Reform, Reconstructionist, or Renewal Jews, although cultural Jews, may be the largest category of all.
The idea that we are one people is more aspirational than real. Fear of anti-Semitism once drew us together, but even with Jew-hatred accelerating in recent years, we remain scattered into isolated bubbles.
Some of our most intense fights have been over Israel. Liberal Zionists like myself want to see a Palestinian State in the West Bank, while religious Zionists aspire to annex the territory, as part of a Greater Israel.
Jews like me align with JStreet, the pro-peace, pro-Israel organization. Others support AIPAC, which lobbies Congress to give unfettered backing to the Netanyahu government.
Still others are active in the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, which seeks to punish Israel for its treatment of the Palestinians. I know people who broke with family members, over their views of Israel.
In recent months our most severe schism has been between New York’s liberal Jews and the Hasidim. The insularity of the ultra-Orthodox — set apart by their dark clothing, deep poverty, huge families, and hyper-legalistic interpretation of Jewish law — has long rankled mainstream Jews, who worry about being associated with religious extremism.
“Why don’t you have a beard and wear one of those long black coats?” a gentile friend asked, prompting me to explain that the Hasidim represent a small percentage of the city’s Jews.
Simmering resentments boiled over this fall, due to the high COVID infection rates in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods. The posts from my liberal Facebook friends to photographs of unmasked Hasidim tightly packed together, during religious rituals, were apoplectic: “Just drove through Borough Park. Not one person wearing a mask,”; “this makes it hard to consider myself part of a Jewish people,”; “Assholes!”
I am hopeful that tensions involving the ultra-Orthodox will ebb, when the pandemic recedes. But our balkanized cultural landscape will continue to make us vulnerable to religious and political fissures.
Our hope of reconciliation rests on education: our willingness to learn our collective history, engage our foundational texts, and become familiar with the vast collection of cultures that make up the messy patchwork of the Jewish experience.
How could someone who is unfamiliar with Torah relate to a sabbath observer? How could a Syrian Jew, their culture untouched by the Holocaust, comprehend the wariness that has permeated Ashkenazi Jewery, without studying European anti-Semitism? Can someone who has never visited Jerusalem understand a religious Zionist?
A Holiday’s Universality
Many of the zealots among us may be beyond engagement. But we can surely lessen the distance between ourselves.
Hanukkah makes it possible to envision such progress, as the holiday has few rituals, beyond lighting candles. My family exemplifies the holiday’s universality.
While I was bar-mitzvahed at an Upper East Side Reform synagogue, and otherwise received little religious education, my wife, Brenda, attended a yeshiva, and was raised to be observant in Judaism’s Conservative tradition. We decided to raise our nine-year-old daughter, Marta, as a sabbath observer, necessitating that I learn kosher laws, and abide by religious customs, that felt foreign to me. But Hanukkah required no adjustment, since it was celebrated the same way in Brenda’s childhood household, as it was in mine.
In this way, the holiday, with its latkes, jelly donuts, dreidels, glowing candles, and gift giving, gives all Jews a way of seeing our common heritage, without the weight of our resentments and rivalries. After all, there is no Orthodox or Reform way to eat a Jelly donut.
This Hanukkah Brenda, Marta and I will light candles in our Park Slope Brooklyn home, just as our co-religionists will be doing in ultra-Orthodox Williamsburg, the religiously eclectic Upper West Side, and Jewish households throughout the city. For eight nights we will all be one.