Monday, December 20, 2010

Chanuka Enlightenment

One of the big differences of living in chul as opposed to Israel this time of year is of course which holiday is being emphasized. In Israel, one can't get around it being chanuka. Everywhere there are chanuka decorations, sufganiyot, chocolate money, chanuka music and of course the beautiful sight of chanuka candles in everyone's window sill.
Now, anyone who has been to chul this time of year knows that the streets are filled with tiny glittering, golden lights (one of the things I always missed in Israel, I have to admit), giant green trees decorated in perfectly aligned color schemes and a red and white bearded fellow carrying lots of presents.
Growing up in chul I have learned to put up with the big fuss that is made out of the birth of Jesus (let's not even get into how Santa Claus and his reindeer are even remotely related to this). I have also learned that my holiday is completely obliterated. I can except that my holiday isn't on full display and it is quite understandable given that we Jews really are a tiny minority where I live (unlike in NY, where you can buy anything chanuka related in almost any store).
However, the fact is that in most European countries things like Chanuka arent simply hidden because it isn't relevant to the majority of people. Rather, it is hidden because we Jews still feel the need to hide our identity. A few weeks ago a prominant Dutch politician Frits Bolkestein remarked that all Jews that are outwardly identifiable as such should move to Israel or America, since he sees no future for them in Holland. This statement caused a huge outrage amongst other Dutch public figures. Some question his sanity (he is getting old), while others like Geert Wilders simply replied that the anti-semitic Muslims should leave, not the Jews. I, and many with me, do not believe Bolkestein is trying to take the easy way out. He is simply identifying a major problem in a country that prides itself on being so progressive, open and tolerant of everyone (think gay rights). I am glad that Bolkestein has started this debate and that even the Jews there are starting to realize that the way they are forced to live their lives is not as it should be in a first world country.
The only thing I don't understand is why it has taken everyone, especially the Jewish community, so long to realize this. One of the reasons I left my European country was because I knew I was not safe there as a Jew, Granted, in Israel one isn't either, but there one is in the majority. There one can stand up and fight for oneself. There one knows the enemy. Whereas where I grew up, we lived a contradictory life. On the one hand we were told things were different now. People had learned from the Holocaust and this would never happen again. They are set on making it up to us. This country is tolerant. People here are open-minded and well educated. Jews no longer have to live in fear. There is a flourishing Jewish community, with synagogues and Jewish schools. Yes, this was all true, to an extent. My mother taught me never to tell strangers I was Jewish, for one can never know how they might react. I grew up in a neighborhood that called the cops, the Jews. Even in the capital, whith the biggest Jewish community of about 20000 people, men cant walk with kipot outside of the small suburban area where they mostly live (and this has been like this at least all my life). The schools, synagogues, youth movements and any other organized Jewish event was always guarded by several shomrim. The schools are fenced in, with cameras everywhere. We learn to live with them, but what is most problematic, we learn to accept them. We trick ourselves into thinking that we are the same as everyone else. Really, is there any other minority group that has to hide who they are in public? That has to cage themselves in? That has to surround themselves with armed men?
I saw this country for what it was and left.
However, it is only recently that I saw how different things can be. Chanuka has just passed us by, yet it wasn't ignored at my work. Though here also, only a small minority is Jewish, the children learned about Chanuka, the menora and the dreidel. I can be a Jew, without having to hide anything and without having to explain much. My daughter goes to daycare there and the staff has looked into kashrut (of their own accord). I get to leave work early on Fridays without any fuss. Same goes for any of the holidays.
Actually, what shocked me most was my own attitude. I started there presuming I would have to somewhat hide my identity. I bought a sheitel, so as not to stand out. I tried to hide the fact that I was doing netilat yadayim and bentching. I still do somewhat. I've had to learn to let go, to be open and to not be afraid of letting people know who I am and what I stand for. And all I can conclude is how ironic it is that this is the mentality I was taught by my progressive, modern and enlightened Western country.

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