Across the street, my neighbors are putting up their annual, over-the-top Christmas decorations. You can see their house from space. For the next two months, I only have to tell people I live across the street from them, and you’ll find our house. And I love it. It’s bright and gaudy, and not on my electric bill. (Yes, I know all about joint responsibility for energy use, but not now, ok?)
And for me? It’s Chanukah time, and that means, besides the greasy-spoon smell of latkes throughout the house, we’re at that point in the Torah (usually either Vayeshev or Miketz…this year it’s Miketz) when the issue of Jewish assimilation takes a big step forward.
In Miketz, Joseph has risen from prisoner to Prime Minister due to his ability to interpret Pharoah’s odd dreams, and his recommendations on how to weather the coming food shortages. Joseph is an Israelite in Egypt, a stranger making his way in a different culture, language, customs, religion, etc. ; in short, an immigrant minority. When he finally “makes good” in the host society, he gets a wife from Pharoah. She’s a non-Jewish Egyptian princess, the perfect trophy wife. Before the famine hits, Joseph has two sons, Menasseh and Ephraim. (Gen. 41: 50) Joseph has “married out” of his faith, produced children, and seems to be living the quintessential assimilated life. So what happens next? Joseph’s brothers arrive, reconcile, the rest of the Israelites follow, and so begins a period of highly assimilated Israelites into the host culture. Soon,a leader arises that feels threatened, so he enslaves the population, and we have Passover. But I want to focus on Joseph’s sons, Menasseh and Ephraim. They are the ones whose names many families traditionally invoke every Shabbat evening, when we bless our own children: “May you be like Menasseh and Ephraim”. Why would that be? Two kids from a mixed marriage is our model? Some scholars say it’s because Menasseh and Ephraim grew up assimilated in Egyptian culture, yet maintained their Jewish identity.
Which brings us to Chanukah. Jews live under Alexander the Great, a fairly benevolent leader when it comes to religious identity. So begins a period of highly assimilated Israelites into the host culture. Soon a leader arises who feels threatened, (didn’t I just type this?) and clamps down on Jewish practice. This time, the community fought back; Judah Maccabee represented a force of traditional practice and nationalistic zeal, pushing back against the surrounding culture.
The irony, of course, now is that for a holiday based in the fight to live and practice as Jews, Chanukah has become the most assimilated of holidays in American Jewish life. Much of it has to do with our current-day Menasseh’s and Ephraim’s, the children of interfaith marriages. Our whole community is changing how we do or don’t include and welcome these children, who, by the way, many of whom are now old enough to marry and have their own kids. Maybe Chanukah is a back into identity-land for those who have felt, or been made to feel, estranged from the Jewish community. Check out Jewish Outreach Institute (www.joi.org) to learn about a new, adult way to play dreidl: Texas Hold’em Dreidl. And take a moment to read my friend Rabbi Nina Mizrahi’s essay on Chanukah and the secular society.
My daughters are off at school; I don’t know if they’ll light the little chanukiot I sent back with them at Thanksgiving. And, since my son is still in school, it will be a struggle to remember to light each night, in between swimming and homework. Still, at some point the latkes will be frying, the songs will be sung and a few, small presents will be opened. We remember Joseph and Judah and their quest to maintain a minority identity among the majority. Our little menorah may be one of only a few on the block, unlike that of my childhood, when most windows held Chanukah lights. It doesn’t matter to me. I do love the Christmas lights on my neighbor’s house, but I love the Chanukah lights in my window more.