Looking for Hanukkah: A Pizza Bagelâ€™s Unfinished Journey
As some of you know, I’m what's known as a “pizza-bagel”. That is, my mom’s family is Italian/Roman Catholic, and my father’s family is Eastern European/Ashkenazi Jewish.
Among other things, this means I grew up celebrating Christian and Jewish holidays. My siblings and I never felt conflicted about this. My parents are very different people, but they’re both open-minded when it comes to religion – which should be kind of obvious, since they got married despite different beliefs and the prejudices of their mutual communities.
We kids were brought up not only with tolerance towards others’ beliefs, but the idea that our own Jewish and Christian roots were nicely intermingled. And when you think about it, there are a lot of similarities, even among the holidays.
Take Hanukkah, for example. Many religions celebrate miracles. The one at the origin of the Festival of Lights is a sacred flame in a ruined temple that miraculously went on burning for eight days and nights, despite there not being enough oil. At Hanukkah, we’re basically celebrating “a thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices,” as the Christmas carol goes. Christmas is a celebration of the same thing, just with a different event representing that miracle and that hope.
I’ve celebrated Hanukkah in different places and in different ways. But I’m still searching for the way that’s best.
Growing up in northern New Jersey, a place where there were lots of pizzas, bagels, and pizza-bagels like me, depending on the date of Hanukkah that year, the winter holiday season would start off either with lighting the menorah or decorating our Christmas tree, often with our Jewish cousins. Though there are, doubtlessly and unfortunately, other racial or ethnic tensions in the metro New York area, Catholics and Jews generally get along fine. I think the attitude can best be summed up by the immortal words of Jersey Shore star Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino: “Nobody gets excluded from ravioli night.”
I love this cultural interplay, and felt right at home. Our Hanukkahs were fun affairs, with small gifts each night, the “Dreidl” song and “Oh Hanukkah” sung at school holiday recitals, and picking dripped candlewax off our menorah.
When I was ten, we moved to the metro-Atlanta area, and the ambiance changed. In the early ‘90’s, there were few Italians in those parts, and even fewer Jews. We were suddenly seen as exotic.
This sometimes led to something I wouldn’t call prejudice, so much as ignorance. For example, once my brother was invited to go to church with one of his friends. The service was apparently fine, but afterwards my brother joined his friend at Sunday school. There, he told us later, one child was asked about Jewish people, to which he calmly answered, “They’re going to hell.” Luckily, this exchange hadn’t been brought on by my brother’s presence; he’d kept to the back of the room the whole time and hadn’t said a word, he told us with relief in his voice. I once had a friend offer to convert me (to what, I wondered at the time – I’ve already got two religions covered), and my sister got a nickname in high school, “LJ”, which, she told me laughingly, was short for “Little Jew”. It was meant as a joke, and that’s how she took it, but something about that has always seemed a little weird to me.
In those days, we continued to celebrate Hanukkah, even after my parents’ divorce left us with only our Roman Catholic mother. She let us say the prayers and light the candles, all four of us at the kitchen table, surrounded by windows whose venetian blinds cut white slices out of the black night outside.
When I moved to New York to go to college, I came into closer contact with other forms of Judaism. I met people who were so strict about keeping kosher that they had two sets of flatware. I met fellow students who couldn’t have dorm rooms on high floors, since they weren’t allowed to use elevators on the Sabbath. I learned that Hasidic Jews would not touch me or call me their own. Yet I still felt happy and accepted. My friends – Jewish and Christian and otherwise, would gather with me every Hanukkah as we lit the menorah in our dorm room.
On my trips to Paris, I came to learn that the French approach to Judaism was a very different thing. Between a past scarred by extreme anti-Semitism, and the principle of secularism as one of the founding pillars of the French Republic, people don’t openly tout their Judaism here. Most synagogues are neatly tucked away, or even fortified behind high metal fences. We have Jewish acquaintances and co-workers, as well as a neighbor. Yet never have I been invited to a Seder, or to light the menorah.
The lack of invitations might be due to the fact that Reform Judaism has very few followers in France. I’m not officially considered a Jew by Reform standards, and the fact that I don’t keep kosher, don’t go to synagogue, don’t celebrate all of the holy days, doesn’t help my case.
Even if I wanted to go to temple, I wouldn’t know where to go. The traditions are different. There doesn’t seem to be a Reformed service like what I know, with the Rabbi speaking with wise, humor-tinged wisdom, in an almost conversational tone. The synagogues here seem like exclusive clubs, and have rituals I will never understand – just as I don’t understand Hebrew.
With some reflection, it does seem silly to want to take part in the Jewish community when I am decidedly not Jewish. For the first time in my life, I’m having a pizza-bagel identity crisis.
As for not being invited to celebrate Hanukkah here, that might be because Hanukkah isn’t a very big celebration in France. My father told me this is how it had been when he was a child in the U.S., before Hanukkah became the Jewish Christmas, and here it’s stayed that way. The only way you know it’s Hanukkah is maybe from a few small-lettered flyers in Jewish neighborhoods, and from the fact that there’s a rush on latkes, challah, and other traditional foods in Ashkenazi bakeries.
This rush isn’t because there’s such a large Jewish population, but because there are so few bakeries that cater to the Ashkenazim. The majority of the Jews in Paris are Sephardic, which separates me from them even further. They eat couscous instead of matzo ball soup, falafel instead of knish. I love their food, but it’s not what I associate with my half-religion.
Language is important, too. Whereas New Yorkers and other Americans (sometimes unknowingly) pepper our language with Yiddish words, there is no Yiddish in Parisian French.
Today, my Hanukkah’s have become a solitary quest for traditional food and menorah candles. A tip from one of my students led me to some back streets of the 19th arrondissement, where, near the rue Petit, there is a thriving Jewish community. No less than three big kosher grocery stores serve the area, and though they’re not very cheerful places, they do have inexpensive Hanukkah accoutrements and matzo ball soup mix (imported from Israel).
From what I’m able to glean, our traditional Hanukkah dinner consists of this very matzo ball soup, fresh latkes and challah from the Marais, and a chicken…from the Halal bakery across the street. I often wonder if my grandfather would be rolling in his grave at the inclusion of infidel poultry on a holy day, but it really is the best rotisserie chicken I’ve ever had!
As our first Hanukkah together approached, I told my boyfriend we should celebrate by getting each other a little something for each night, a gift that cost a euro, or something we'd made. I thought it would be fun. My boyfriend has many good qualities, but he loathes coming up with gift ideas. Last year, he told me he hated Hanukkah. Though I’d explained the holiday to him, though we’d lit the candles and said the prayers every Hanukkah night for the past three years, and though he loves latkes, I realized he’d started to associate the Festival of Lights only with presents.
I felt horribly disappointed in myself – in fact, even writing this, I still feel ashamed. I’ve failed as Hanukkah Ambassador, and, by extension, Ambassador of American Reformed Judaism.
This year, there will be no presents for Hanukkah, only prayers while lighting the menorah, and our traditional meal one night of the holiday. You could say that this is the root of Hanukkah, the part that’s truly important, and I’d agree. But the fun of it was something, too.
What would Christmas be if we didn’t have decorations and carols and all the trimmings? The significance would still be there, but it would be a lot less joyful. And isn’t that what these holidays are trying to capture and re-create, the “thrill of hope”, “joy” that came “to the world” when all seemed lost?
The ambiance of the winter holiday season is, for me, a translation of that joy at witnessing a miracle. We hope for a change in our everyday lives, an increased warmth and generosity from our fellows. We await surprises and celebration. Nothing can compare to the actual feeling of witnessing or contemplating a miracle, but the holiday season does have a powerful magic all its own that may take us somewhat close.
What is Hanukkah, really? Is it a sober celebration, or a time of happiness and wonder? When I look back on all the ways I’ve commemorated this special time, I think those days of my early childhood were best, a combination of fun and solemn tradition. But in the place where I am now, with new difficulties and new insights, I wonder if I’ll ever be able to celebrate like that again.