Monday, December 3, 2007

"Presents on Hanukah?" or "How to be a minority"

Contrary to what may be the perception of many non-Jewish Americans (and probably many Jews as well), the holiday of Hanukah, which begins at sundown on December 4th, is not one of the most important holidays on the Jewish calendar. Like any holiday, of course, it is very important, but the degree of attention it is given in the U.S. relative to holidays like Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur gives Hanukah the appearance of a relative significance far greater than ascribed to it by traditional Judaism. That many Jewish families (mine included) give children presents on Hanukah seems to me to be the product of a desire – an understandable one – to blend in with the predominantly Christian culture of the U.S. Put simply, Hanukah’s significance in Judaism is exaggerated by American Jews for the purpose of “fitting in” to Christian American society.

If this situation is the case, it raises an interesting question for both Jews and Muslims (and any other non-Christian Americans): to do what degree do we allow ourselves flexibility to adapt, assimilate, acculturate – whatever you want to call it – to a surrounding society in which we are a clear minority? I believe that the goal of much of Jewish law is to elevate or make holy through separation. Indeed, the Hebrew word for holy, “kadosh,” comes from a root meaning “separation.” Just as Shabbat is a holy day separate from the rest of the week, so do Jews, for example, eat kosher food or wear a yarmulke to elevate ourselves spiritually by separating from the predominant way of doing things. On the other hand, Judaism is a religion that teaches us to live in society. Jews are taught to obey the laws of the ruling government. Jews who delve into mysticism do not go off into the forest and meditate after having a spiritual experience; rather, they should come back into their society and help others achieve similar spiritual heights. I would love to hear about Muslim parallels or dissimilarities on these subjects.

So how do we deal with the pressures of being a minority when we simultaneously want to integrate and maintain our distinct beautiful identities? A simple example courtesy of the American Hanukah experience: how do we explain to a young Jewish child that he is not getting presents like all his friends because he is “different, but not in a bad way?”

One answer is to isolate one’s self, as many very observant Jews do. But this approach is far from satisfying to me. My desire to maintain a “separateness” as a Jew in a majority Christian country does not stem from a revulsion of that culture. If I were to feel that the only way to be an upright Jew was to detach from non-Jewish society, I would feel that I had failed. This dilemma, of course, has been pondered endlessly before, but that’s because it’s a never-ending problem.

And I don’t have any more answers here other than celebrating the fact that I am still proud to be a Jew and happy in American society. Jews and Muslims in America face very similar identity issues, and it would benefit us both to hear each other’s views on how to navigate these questions. Any thoughts?...

Happy Hanukah!


Gustavo said...

Interesting post Avins. The issue of tradition vs. modernization is very important to both Muslims and Jews in America. In my opinion, giving presents is only a minor change to tradition for us Jews, but it raises the question of how we would respond to other cultural phenomena that would, if embraced, force us to alter tradition in a more drastic manner.

Zeide said...

Zeide's comments:

The concerns you express are widely held: how to maintain your jewish identity while still being part of the general American society. My approach is to be affiliated with Jewish organizations, be involved in Jewish activities, be open about my Jewish background when interacting with gentiles, keeping Jewish traditions and moral values, and doing my best to transmit the desire to maintain Jewish continuity to my children and grandchildren. The central motivation is to continue our positive contributions to the future of the human species.