“…a certain sense of rootlessness is part of the American character.”
I’m one of those queers who happily lives their life with their family at the peripheral. My childhood was weird and many of the rituals I grew up participating in felt forced, and the closest thing my family had to traditions was going to the Christmas tree farm on Christmas Eve after they’d closed for the season and “getting a free tree” (we were technically stealing). Come to think of it, that actually was pretty fun.
But outside of the Christmas tree capers of 1995-2001, we were a rootless family. My parents divorced when I was young, I grew up with my mom and my brother, and we did our own thing. Most years, we weren’t using grandma’s china, or gathering around trees with our extended family. We did our own thing, based out of survival (I still can’t believe my mom was a 30 year old single woman with a full time job and two kids), and we were happy enough. Nothing felt missing, nothing felt wrong.
It wasn’t until my early twenties that I even thought about creating my own ritualistic life, and because I didn’t grow up in a family with deep roots or strong traditions, the creation of those felt wide open. I could do whatever I wanted with whoever I wanted and call it sacred. My queerness broke wide open idea of family, of ritual, of tradition.
And then I became a Jew, and centuries of traditions and rituals were placed on my shoulders, and all of a sudden, creating my own felt scarier and more high stakes than it had before.
“…because of our traditions, everyone knows who [they are] and what gd expects [them] to do”
— Fiddler on the Roof
As far as I know, I am the only Jew in my family. And if I’ve learned anything in my ongoing Jewish education, it’s that rituals and traditions matter to Jews. And it makes sense. Gentiles have tried to wipe out the Jewish culture and religion as long as there have been Jews, and were it not for these, we may not have lasted as long as we have.
While it’s absolutely one of the more minor holidays, most Jews that I know have their most precious memories around Hanukkah. They have memories of lighting the candles of the Hannukiyah and reciting blessings, eating latkes and sufganiyot, playing dreidel, and giving gifts and/or tzedakah (donating to charitable causes). I know very few Jews whose ritual life doesn’t include Hanukkah traditions. And while I have learned about the traditions, and by becoming a Jew, I’ve technically inherited those traditions, but they still don’t feel as if they are mine.
American Jewry is deeply rooted in Ashkenazi culture, and you can tell me that “Ashkenazi doesn’t mean white” until you run out of breath, but the way that Ashkenazi culture has been transmitted in American culture is undeniably white. And when most of what I’m learning about how to be a Jew is rooted in whiteness, it’s hard to relate. I’ve been deeply appreciative of the Jews of color in my life for helping me to separate Judaism from whiteness in my mind, especially the time I’ve spent learning with Ammud, a Torah academy for Jews of Color, but as with anything, it’s complicated.
Passover? I love her. Shabbat??? Literally cannot get enough. But Hanukkah? I don’t want to celebrate a holiday where we “chase” away darkness with light, as if darkness is inherently bad. How do you build rituals for yourself when the explanation you’re given for them doesn’t work for you? How do I make Hanukkah mine when I don’t care to take on white people’s shit?
I didn’t grow up with stories of generations practicing the same traditions and so it felt fine to pull something out of the air and make it mine. But Judaism, if anything, is for me this unbroken thread made up of generations after generations of tradition. Without a connection to those traditions, at best, I don’t know who I am as a Jew. At worst, I don’t know how I relate to Gd. If I reject the rituals and traditions I know of, am I breaking something people before me have worked to preserve? Am I rejecting Gd? And because I chose this life, what right do I have to do so?
עַל הַנִּסִּים וְעַל הַפֻּרְקָן וְעַל הַגְּבוּרוֹת וְעַל הַתְּשׁוּעוֹת וְעַל הַנִּפְלָאוֹת וְעַל הַנֶּחָמוֹת שֶׁעָשִׂיתָ לַאֲבוֹתֵינוּ בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם בַּזְּמַן הַזֶּה (We give thanks for the miracles, the liberation, the victories, the redemption, and the struggles that you have waged for our ancestors in those days at this season.)
—Al HaNissim prayer from Siddur B’chol L’vav’cha
Hanukkah is a chag, a holiday with historic roots, but not a yom tov, one of six biblically-mandated festivals. Instead originating from Torah, Hanukkah commemorates an historic event when Greek and Syrian armies attempted to force Jews to give up our traditions. Our temple was desecrated and we were forced into pagan worship and assimilation, which to a people who just wanted to be left alone to do their own thing was incredibly upsetting. While some Jews may have been fine with assimilating, the Maccabees, who we might now call zealots, were not. Was it their zeal or their identity as chosen people that caused them to defeat armies larger and more powerful than they?
On Hanukkah, we give thanks for liberation that seemed miraculous at the time. Hanukkah in Hebrew means “dedication”. We rededicated ourselves to our Jewishness. And while I, as a queer convert who still keeps a Christmas tree and a rosary that was once meaningful in my house might not have been who the Maccabees were seeking to liberate, I can connect to liberation. I come from a family of enslaved people who performed their own miracles when they set themselves free. I come from a queer lineage of fighters dedicated to the cause of liberation. When the traditions and rituals fall flat, digging deeper into them often leads to my own rededication. A reminder that Jewishness isn’t just bagels and kvetching, but a long history of fighting for the right to be. Just because Target is trying to sell me Hanukkah as a Jewish version of Christmas, I don’t have to buy it.
I’m okay with light in the darkness.
And potato latkes.
Oh, and donuts.
Let’s start there.
— Trisha Arlin, “I am Over the Maccabees”
Perhaps Hanukkah offers me, especially this year, when I’m alone by choice and necessity, an opportunity to reexamine my relationship to rituals. This year feels like an opportunity to find deeper meaning behind the tradition of lighting the Hannukiyah; not because I’m commanded, not because light equals good and dark equals bad. Something more.
Maybe this year for Hanukkah, I don’t have to think about my tricky relationship to tradition as detrimental. After all, I’m a black lesbian, I love fried food and candles. I think I’ve been afraid to add to Judaism because it seems so old and so sacred and I’m deeply afraid of doing it wrong. But I am a Jew. And there is room for me to spin my experiences and desires into the long thread of history. By adding my own kavana, or intentions, behind these practices, I make room for other Black queer Jews to feel like Judaism belongs to them too.
This year Hanukkah starts at sundown Thursday, December 10 (tonight!) and ends at sundown on Friday, December 18.