Thursday, December 17, 2009

Chanukah for a Multi-Ethnic Society: Greek Salad, Syrian Bread & Olive Oil

We recently saw Yisrael Campbell in his one-man show Circumcise Me, currently running in New York City. In his performance, he discussed his journey to Judaism and within Judaism. Along the way, he was married to an Egyptian woman from a Moslem family. He tells of the discomfort when he brings her to a Passover Seder, where the Egyptians are presented as the taskmasters and villains, who are ultimately drowned in the sea amidst great celebration.

His story, told with a wicked wit, is an important one. It serves to remind us that Jewish rituals and stories developed at a time in which nations and cultures were separated in ways that rarely required our people to encounter those who were past enemies (or descendants thereof) at our dinner parties. The early rabbis even went out of their way to discourage these encounters by enacting restrictions in food preparation and the handling of wine.

As history developed though, the encounters between Jewish culture and other cultures followed. When Greeks were in power and Greek culture dominated, the Septuagint translation of the Torah was created to allow both Jews and Greeks access to its texts. The Golden Age of Spain saw conversation that brought Jews and Moslems into close intellectual contact. Napoleon's France brought with it the creation of a new Sanhedrin, that would support loyalty to France, while leading a Jewish community in exile. And in 19th century Germany the sharing taking place between Jews and Christians was so strong that the early Reform movement (and elements of the traditional community) adopted and adapted elements of Christianity into synagoggue life, such as dress, architecture, and music.

But never has the interaction between Jew and "gentile" been so seamless as it is in America today. Studies have shown that the young generation of Jews is proud to be Jewish, but wants to play out its Judaism in spaces that are not specific to Jews alone. So, for example, young Jews of all persuasions are quite proud to light their menorah publicly or at parties to which their multicultural group of friends join in.


So, in a room in which descendants of the Maccabees, descendants of the Greeks and descendants of the Syrians join together, what are we to do with the story? Certainly we want to respect the accomplishments of the Hasmoneans for their military and national victory and their spiritual strength. In my youth, I didn't expect my Greek friends in college to show up at menorah lightings celebrating their ancestors' defeat. Not true of today's students and young adults.

Regardless of who shows up, the story is what it is and should be told proudly. And let's be honest: Chanukah was not established as a holiday to celebrate universal religious freedom, but to commemorate a specifically Jewish war fought to allow Judaism to be practiced and for an independent Jewish government to be established in Israel. And recently David Brooks wrote about how, in the historical events Chanukah commemorates, some of the villians acutally did good things and some of the heroes did bad things (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/11/opinion/11brooks.html?_r=1).

On his Tools for Shuls blog, http://www.toolsforshuls.com/, Rabbi Hayim Herring has invited people to create new rituals in Judaism and has posted some of the innovations. I would suggest that Hanukkah requires some new expressions as well, to meet the needs of a multicultural world in which the descendants of the heroes and villains join to see the menorah lit and partake of high cholesterol and carbohydrate treats, which will require all to head to the gym to work out (thanks to the Hellenists for that!).



My admittedly somewhat tongue-in-cheek first response would be a food ritual (hey, we're Jewish!) in which the Greek part of the story (which includes Alexander, who is actually a somewhat good guy in Jewish traditions) is commemorated with Greek Salad, the Syrian role is commemorated with pita bread, and the Jewish heroism is commemorated with olive oil dressing. The advantages of this new ritual is that it is inclusive rather than divisive for a multicultural setting, includes an bit of humor, and serves as a healthy meal to offset the latkes and sufganiyot (jelly donuts) that must accompany it.

Even if the particular recommendation for a ritual doesn't work, we should keep in mind our living in a multicultural world and look at how we can adapt our practices while keeping the integrity of them intact.

Chag Sameach...Happy Chanukah!