December is the season of utter confusion for a Jewish kid from an assimilated family wading through the American melting pot. Unless you have a very clear, strong Jewish identity, you feel the tension. What do you answer the cashier who extends a certain holiday greeting? What about the school play and the company party? It’s the time of year for clarification. As the month progresses, the mall parking lots fill up, and the green and red decorations become ubiquitous, the unaffiliated Jew is pushed to reexamine and redefine the “Jewish thing.” Where does he draw the line and assert his differentness? Such questions are usually lost in the anesthetizing din of the media and the pressures of daily life. But come December, they’re hard to ignore. Growing up in the suburbs during the 1960s, I was torn. A second-generation American, my childhood was saturated with Yiddish culture, Bubby’s knishes, Jewish jokes and Fiddler on the Roof, but little in the way of real Jewish beliefs or day-to-day practice. I was jealous of my non-Jewish friends’ tree, candy canes and mountains of presents. I wanted to fit in. Badly. Our little menorah and greasy latkes couldn’t compete with all that glitz. So I did sit on you-know -who’s lap, especially since our family friend Rube Weiss was the most famous one in town. I begged my parents for a Chanukah bush, but they weren’t willing to go that far. Then one year Grandma Ida said yes! Grandma had been raised in an Orthodox home. On her wall, her parents looked out sternly from a turn-of-the-century photo, her father clad in a long black coat and hat, her mother peering out from under a boxy sheitel. Unfortunately, uneducated in Jewish matters and married to a socialist, Grandma kept her superstitions to herself.
We modern, rational Jews had no need for “kenahoras” and all that nonsense. Keeping kosher was a quaint relic of ancient times; nowadays we had sanitation and refrigeration. Grandma Ida sighed and accepted the new order. She smiled and bought us a Chanukah bush and stockings for the fireplace, and in the spring she bought us marshmallow bunnies and chocolate chick baskets. Why should her grandchildren be deprived? I wish I’d learned something authentically Jewish from someone who was knowledgeable when I was young and far adrift. Maybe it would have saved me from roaming so many dead-end streets in my search for something deeper. Baruch Hashem, after light-years of searching, intensive change and discovery, I knew exactly what to do in December: get out that menorah, start frying latkes, invite the neighbors—the works. Chanukah was celebrated with all of its genuine warmth, light and holiness; the kids were suffused with joy and excitement. I knew they were in quite a different place than I had been at their age when we happened to drive past a display of lights one year. “Close your eyes!” my son Mendy, the little zealot, yelled to his siblings. “It’s avodah zarah!”Indeed, December is the season of sadness and confusion for so many well-meaning Jews. For several years I taught in a Reform Hebrew school. I was able to make my own curriculum and viewed the job as outreach.
Every year before Chanukah we’d have a discussion about what we were doing for the holidays. It was usually the smartest, most Jewish-looking kid in the class who would inevitably tell me, “We’re spending Chanukah with one grandmother and the other holiday with the other grandmother.” “Oh,” I’d say with a sinking heart. “Which grandparents are Jewish?” David Cohen or Sarah Friedman or Josh Rubinstein, another nice kid, would invariably reply, “My dad’s parents.” We are taught that only a small fraction of the Jews who were enslaved went out of Mitzrayim. I am often amazed and bewildered; how on earth did I start out way over there, wondering why my parents kept making that ridiculous racist demand that I marry a Jew—and end up all the way over here? How did I manage to jump over that vast cultural divide? I don’t know; it must be zechus avos. How did I give up my university-conditioned cynicism? How did I accept covering my hair, so much cooking, cleaning for Pesach, kapparos—all the myriad details? As I look back over my shoulder at those who are still on that distant multicultural shore, I realize how difficult it is for them to relate to all the stuff we do over here. They don’t even have the language to ask the right questions, to know how hungry they are. Finding a way to show them how beautiful it is seems daunting. Some people might say, “It’s over. You can’t worry about them. Don’t look back; just hang on tight and build new generations. It’s sad, but that’s how it is. They’re gone.” I don’t like that. It hurts. It’s wrong. I know how sweet and good those confused, earnest, assimilated and seemingly lost neshamos really are. I’d much rather sing “No Jew Will Be Left Behind” with Avraham Fried. But such a vision seems impossible. My father recently met his best friend from kindergarten, a friendship that has lasted over 80 years.
This dear man and his wife just moved into a non-Jewish assisted-living facility, complete with poinsettias and figurines and all of the other December trappings. Having long ago made peace with his intermarried sons and non-Jewish daughters-in-law and grandchildren, he is no longer bothered by the lack of kosher food or other Jewish staples. My heart aches thinking of them spending their twilight years in such a place.Bridging the gap seems impossible. Like Chanukah. Like Eretz Yisrael. Like the Jewish people. How does such a ragtag band of persecuted wanderers continue to exist? How did the few beat the many? How did one tiny cruse of oil last eight days? How did I make that transition to the world of Torah, becoming the matriarch of a tribe of children and grandchildren with proud Jewish names and identities, bli ayin hara, whose lichtige pictures grace my diningroom wall? Visitors gaze. It’s not an earthly thing. It’s not even logical to have raised all those kids, paid tuition, and bought shmurah matzah on a chinuch salary. It doesn’t make any sense at all. It’s a heavenly thing, like Chanukah, like the pintele Yid, the pilot light of the soul that continues to burn in even the most distant, most assimilated Jew. Nowadays I travel a lot to speaking engagements. Invariably, in every audience, she is there—the one I was meant to meet.
We recognize each other. A psychiatrist. An artist. A mom. A grandma. These neshamelach come in many forms and span the spectrum of socioeconomic and educational back grounds. All their status and busyness just didn’t satisfy them. They’re all hungry neshamos, alive, the flame reaching upward, almost jumping off the wick with excitement. They’ve finally found a name for the driving force that’s been making them crazy all these years. They’ve found out where to get their neshamos some wholesome food. I’m usually more inspired than they are. I’m revived. It’s really true—the Jewish neshamah cannot be extinguished. Each one has its own journey, its moment, when the dormant cinders blaze anew. And Hashem will lead each one lovingly home. Each one. Take that, Pew Report, with your grim statistics! Where do we light the menorah? In the window, in the doorway. We’ve got to let that delicious light shine out into the darkness, burning until each soul is brought in from a cold, dark, empty street. Inside. Around a warm table. And our light— Hashem’s light—is enough, enough to outshine the tinsel and the thousand million shtussim (foolish things) out there. And though it’s sometimes hard to see just how it will happen, it’s enough to bring them all home.