My whole life people assumed I was Jewish or Italian, but more often Jewish. I suppose it might be because, as an Armenian-American, I share some of the same stereotypical physical characteristics attributed to people from that part of the world.
There were times I never really went out of my way to correct any fleeting misconception about my identity because, as a non-religious person, it didn’t really matter to me. Though Armenian identity is formatively entwined with Christianity, my parents largely subscribed to their own, private ways of worship. As I grew older and read more about the world, I found it hard to reconcile the practice of blind faith in a single belief system. Eventually, I deduced there were common strands of knowledge that ran through all belief systems, but the only way we’d know all there was to know was when we were no longer here to tell anyone about it. That said, I always approached organized religion as a curious student, open to learning different theories about life’s mysteries.
Luckily, I married a man who feels similarly. He’s Jewish, so I found myself bestowed with the opportunity to learn about holidays people just assumed I always celebrated. We decided to combine forces, celebrating holidays in what I like to call an equal-opportunity-Judeo-Christian manner, meaning we celebrate Passover and Easter, Hanukkah and Christmas, more with the intent of acknowledging the composition of our kids’ DNA than actually engaging in spiritual worship.
As a “shiksa” (non-Jewish woman), I wouldn’t dare attempt to explain the deeper meaning of Hanukkah but I have been told there are many levels to the story. In a nutshell, according to Chabad.org, Hanukkah (sometimes spelled Chanukah) is “an eight-day, wintertime ‘festival of lights,’ celebrated with a nightly menorah lighting, special prayers and fried foods.” To paraphrase, the word “Hanukkah” means “dedication” because it celebrates the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem to G-d after a small group of pious Jews, led by Judah the Maccabee, defeated the Seleucids (Syrian-Greeks) when they tried to force the people of Israel to accept Greek culture and beliefs way back in second century BCE. They went to light the Temple’s Menorah (candelabra) and found the one-day supply of oil that was left lasted for eight days, giving them time to find more oil. This is the reason eight candles are now lit — one for each night — in candelabras.
I’ve come to love celebrating Hanukkah — and not just for my husband’s fantastic latkes. It’s beautiful to watch him and our children honor his ancestry as he dons his yarmulke, recites the blessings and lights the candles. I admire how so many aspects of Jewish worship and tradition honors the endurance of their culture against all odds (as of this past Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, it’s 5779) as much as it does what their culture believes. And, considering what my own ancestors have endured, I can relate in my own way.
Through language and ritual, we are charged with keeping our native cultures alive, yet, we are Americans and by the sheer act of choosing each other, some would question if I’m Armenian enough, or he’s Jewish enough.
In many ways, our cultures are remarkably similar in that, both Armenians and Jews descend from survivors of genocide/holocaust, a resulting diaspora and the challenge of having to assimilate as immigrants into various adopted cultures. Through language and ritual, we are charged with keeping our native cultures alive, yet, we are Americans and by the sheer act of choosing each other, some would question if I’m Armenian enough, or he’s Jewish enough.
In a recent “New York Times” essay, a Jewish writer considered how a holiday that “commemorates a battle against assimilation” is the very battle most assimilated Jews now celebrate. The writer explains how the story of Hanukkah is based on “a historical conflict between the Maccabees and the Hellenized Jews, the former being religious zealots who lived in the hills of Judea and practiced an ancient form of guerrilla warfare, the latter being mostly city-dwelling assimilationists who ate pork, didn’t circumcise their male children and made the occasional sacrificial offering to pagan gods.” Because he feels “Hanukkah, in essence, commemorates the triumph of fundamentalism over cosmopolitanism,” it leads him to question if he would’ve been considered pious enough (he goes to yoga, occasionally eats pork) to be accepted by the Maccabees.
Again, I am in absolutely no position to make a call about this writer’s predicament. But, what I can say, is that he is the product of a formidable legacy of survival. And, like my husband, he respects that enough to want to keep its treasured rituals going. If that isn’t an act of faith in and of itself, I don’t know what is.