For Those Wondering
My essay “Saying Goodbye to Hanukkah” has sparked a lot of discourse. I have not been and will not be replying individually to the many messages I’ve been receiving, but I do want to answer some questions and address some claims.
First, I do want to apologize for the hurt I caused. I have heard you and it was not my intent.
The main question out there is why the heck was this published in the New York Times? Who cares about this one woman’s life and why would this space be given to a non-Jew to write about anything Jewish? How is this newsworthy and how could the publisher choose this essay over anything else to publish at this holiday?
I’m a freelance writer who writes about coming out at National Coming Out Day, motherhood at Mother’s Day, and so on, and so when looking for essay ideas I realized I had a story to tell at Hanukkah. It’s a story that is at once unique to my family but also reflects the stories of many non-religious people of my generation. Essays get published every day by the New York Times and other outlets that are just stories: stories of losing a husband, stories of an experience with COVID, stories of birthing a baby, stories about enjoying bicycling. NBC News published a personal essay of mine this year about driving by a statue of Bigfoot every day. It’s not about being “newsworthy,” just taking a journey in someone else’s mind for a few minutes.
Those who share their own lives usually aren’t out to say their story is more important than anyone else’s, we are simply writers who are engaging in storytelling that strikes a chord with others. The reader can relate and feel seen, learn a new perspective, be made aware of something for the first time, or understand what’s going in a large cultural shift through reading about one story exemplifying it. I’m not saying my essay did all of that, just explaining the genre of personal essays and the context in which I pitched the piece.
I want to be clear this was not an opinion piece in the Opinion section making an argument. This was a personal essay in the Parenting section where many parents share their stories. My goal was absolutely not to convince anyone to do what I do. It wasn’t meant to be a “take” trying to be woke or a justification or an announcement that I felt the whole world needed to know. I definitely didn’t mean to “trash” or denigrate Hanukkah or Judaism. It was meant to be a piece of writing reflecting a personal conflict many others feel.
My experience is not uncommon and my essay resonated with many who are also grappling with the secularization of culture, parenting choices around religion, a longing for a connection to an identity that wasn’t fully passed down to them, extended family politics, and more. It does reflect a larger trend of how more and more people are not religious and I imagine that’s part of what made it of interest to publish.
Now I understand the context in which it was received and that it was not just another story. It wasn’t the story or the person that needed to be lifted up at this time. I didn’t contemplate or realize mine could be the only Hanukkah story highlighted in this publication for the year. Stories of Jewish joy and pride by Jewish writers deserve the space.
I acknowledge that someone who does not identify as a Jew being the person given space to write about a Jewish holiday at that holiday’s time of year (even if the person has Jewish blood and was raised celebrating the holiday) is problematic and that it is painful for the representation of Jewishness to be about losing or erasing it.
I am the one who put my personal story out there so people have a right to respond publicly. I do ask that you refrain from hateful slurs and the like in my inbox. I’m still a human trying my best and I do have a right to make my own personal decisions of how to live my life and raise my kids. I didn’t intend harm and I’m sorry I caused it.
I’d like to address some FAQ as well. People are discussing my personal experience since I put my personal experience out there so I’d like to fill in the gaps in the conversation. I don’t think my story or experience is more special or important than anyone else’s, but now that it’s in the discourse, here are some clarifications on the questions being asked.
My family’s religious experiences
My mom was raised by religious Catholics in New England who took her and her siblings to church. She was baptized and took communion. My mom never went to church again as an adult outside of weddings and funerals. She did not believe in it and never brought Christianity back into her life in a religious way. She does not identify as religiously Christian. Her parents are now dead and none of her siblings were or are religious or had children.
My dad was raised by conservative Jews in New England who took him and his siblings to temple. He went to Hebrew school and had a bar mitzvah. (As a point of clarification, only my dad remembers there being a Christmas tree, his two siblings do not.) My dad never went to synagogue as an adult except for weddings and funerals. He did not believe in it and never brought Judaism back into his life in a religious way. He does not identify as religiously Jewish. His parents are now dead and one of his siblings is not religious and not passing on Judaism to his child he had with a non-Jewish woman. The other sibling is religious and moved from New England to Israel and had been there most of her adult life. She raised the children she had with a Jewish man as observant Jews and has observant Jewish grandchildren there now. They find great meaning in their faith and community and I love that they have that.
My mom’s extended family is mostly gone now but they were the ones when I was growing up who cared about Christmas and Easter and so we went to their houses to celebrate. My dad’s extended family in the U.S. never celebrated any Jewish holidays when I was growing up so we were not invited over for those. I imagine we would have gone if we were. My dad’s American family members celebrated Christmas with us some years.
My religious upbringing
I was raised Unitarian Universalist (UU), a religion that draws on Judeo-Christian traditions and has no holy book of its own. My parents wanted to raise me “something” and this religion allows you to believe whatever you want about God (including not at all), bring any traditions you were raised with into it, and exposes children to all world religions’ lessons in the religious education. Many other Jewish-Christian intermarriage families come to this religion. We went to the UU Festival of Lights I mentioned in the essay (not a service, just activities for children) and the meeting house would also have Seders and other Jewish and Christian services but we never went to those. We did attend UU services with hymns and a sermon on many Sundays.
I did not go to Hebrew school. I was not baptized. I did not have a bat mitzvah. I never took communion. I did have a UU Coming of Age ceremony with no mention of God.
I also was raised with values. My parents did an excellent job of instilling respect for others, love of social justice, responsibility to care for others, and other foundations I carry with me. They did this not through UUism or holidays or anything religious, but through their example, their words, and their encouragement. The discussions and lessons of ethics from my UU religious education also brought these values into my life. UUs believe in seven principles that I think we can all agree on.
My religious adulthood
My wife and I met while working at a UU organization, though neither of us identified as UU. We tried going to some UU services but they never resonated enough for us to become a part of the religion. I have every respect for it and it would likely be our closest match if we did have a religion.
I find meaning in many things like activism, mutual aid, and youth work. We have many of our own traditions like our children dedicating their birthdays to one cause they care about each year. (We choose something for them when they’re one or two that reflects their interests, but they take over as the grow up.) We have sincerely held beliefs and values about kindness and social justice that we pass on to our kids daily. We don’t need any religion for that.
I personally do not believe in God. I do not identify as Christian or Jewish, but when asked I say something like “I’m not, but my dad’s family is” to explain I’m marginally connected. For those who have mistakenly said I am a self-identified Christian, I absolutely am not. I feel very out of place and unwelcome if I ever step into a church or Christian religious setting.
I did not leave any religion because it was homophobic or treated me poorly or because I thought they were worthless or wrong or have nothing to offer. I wasn’t raised with them, I don’t believe in God, I get no fulfillment out of services I’ve attempted to go to, so I never abandoned anything that was never there to begin with. I am sure we could find a happy and accepting home in a faith community if it called to us, but our calling isn’t there.
My wife and I did attempt to find a religion in our 20s (we are now in our 30s). We thought reconstructionist or reform Judaism could be a fit and looked into conversion. I felt very drawn to it despite being raised without the joy of Jewish community that can be one of the most treasured parts. Unfortunately, we went to a Chabad house that was very unwelcoming. That’s not the reason we didn’t pursue conversion to Judaism, but it didn’t help. In the end we realized that any organized religion wasn’t really for us. We never saw any religion as only its holidays or the easy parts and we respect people of all faiths who do find meaning in them. It’s wonderful that people do and use that faith to be forces for good in the world. I also recognize that the oppression the Jewish people have and do endure makes it all the more meaningful to pass it on to a new generation and keep it alive.
I love the messages about caring for each other, doing no harm, seeking justice, giving back, and more that are present in many world religions including Judaism, UUism, and Christianity. I personally carry those messages with me without attaching them to a religion.
So, if I don’t identify as Christian, why do I celebrate Christmas and Easter? I celebrate them secularly without mass, Jesus, or anything else religious just like millions of others do. By “celebrate,” I mean my extended family on my wife’s side and my side invite us for a meal and we go like we do for Thanksgiving. It’s the times our whole family gets together. If my family gathered for any Jewish holidays, we’d celebrate those secularly as well. Since the holidays for us are in large part about being together with family, we join in the family celebrations that are present.
My parents stopped celebrating Hanukkah as soon as my sister and I were grown. No other family members in the U.S. celebrate it or any other Jewish holiday. No one invites us to celebrate and since we are not Jewish we don’t force ourselves to celebrate it on our own. My extended U.S. family said goodbye to Hanukkah years ago and this essay was about having my own young kids is making me reflect on how I personally am not going to revive it.
I consider reciting a prayer about God to be religious. I don’t consider a Reese’s egg to be religious in the same sense. In my house, our secular celebration of Christmas is a cultural remnant passed down by my family that keeps us connected to family members outside of our household. Lighting a menorah as non-Jews would feel offensive. I see Santa as cultural and not something that people worship religiously. I am entirely unopposed to having latkes and playing dreidel in our house because I was raised with those secular elements of Hanukkah myself. I worry it would be appropriation since we are not Jewish, but those who have reached out to me to talk about secular Judaism seem to say since I was personally raised with them it would be valid to bring back those traditions. We certainly may, as I said in the essay.
If readers took away from my essay that I am tossing away Hanukkah flippantly because it is meaningless to me, my writing did not reflect my lived truth. It actually means a great deal to me in many ways and realizing that I was the last generation to practice it in my branch of the family saddens me. Many noted the sad tone of the essay, and that loss (which was ultimately lost a generation before me) is why. Just because after much contemplation it is not part of my children’s life does not mean I am stomping on it in disrespect.
I don’t hate or dislike Hanukkah, Judaism, or Jews. I don’t think Jews should stop celebrating Jewish holidays. (Again, this was not an opinion piece trying to sway anyone to live as I live, and again, I understand how the placement, framing, and timing of this personal story caused harm.)
I do not think Judaism is just a set of rituals and words to recite and I’m sorry if my essay made it sound like that is my full understanding of a beautiful faith and community. I also understand there are many ways to be Jewish, but I did not find one that resonates for me. Yes, I did seek. Sometimes I wish I had because I do truly respect and agree with so much of it.
I have been told I am not Jewish or that I am Jewish by different Jews over the years because of my Jewish heritage coming from my father’s side. I have absolutely no self-loathing about my Jewish blood and love the connection to my cultural heritage when we visit my Jewish relatives in Israel. My children (one connected to me by blood and one not) will have exposure to that culture and religion through the visits we continue to take there. They’ll probably learn some Hebrew words to get by while we’re there. They also have PJ Library books that teach many wonderful values as well as about Jewish holidays and traditions. I would never deny that part of myself. The line where I say “I am not Jewish” is meant religiously, but I do have ethnic and cultural ties to being Jewish, however loose. Visiting Jewish family in Israel multiple times as a child and as an adult has strengthened those ties.
Assimilation and Appropriation
My parents left their religions of origin and did not raise us in either one. They passed on the remnants only in holidays celebrated as secularly as possible. Just like we didn’t celebrate Rosh Hashanah or other Jewish holidays, we also didn’t celebrate Lent or other Christian holidays besides the two I’ve mentioned. This was not a case of a Jewish family marrying a Christian family and both families wanted their religion to be the one given to the grandkids and Christianity won because it is the dominant one in American society. This was a case of geography where we celebrated Christmas and Easter with my mom’s family because they lived in New England and my Jewish parent was not at all religious and no one in his U.S. family celebrated any Jewish holidays. My mom’s mom would go to mass and other religious activities we didn’t partake in, we just had the family gathering. Like for many families, the holidays for us are about being with family.
I considered reviving the Hanukkah I was raised with now that I have my own kids, even though we’d be the only ones celebrating it in the family besides those in Israel. This would have been as a nod to our heritage and the way I was raised and about caring that our Jewishness not be completely erased but it felt wrong and disrespectful to do this without any context or other ties to Judaism. My parents felt that celebrating both Christmas and Hanukkah was the right thing to do for kids with a raised-Jewish parent and raised-Christian parent. A generation later, not having been raised as a Jew, the decision has a different context.
I ended up with Christmas and Easter because every single family member that I have in the U.S. celebrates them and no family member I have in the U.S. celebrates any Jewish holiday. When I looked at what mattered to us about the holidays it was gathering with family and so we celebrate what our families’ celebrate with them.
Those saying a non-Jew not celebrating Hanukkah is a really stupid essay to publish, I can only say that I was raised with a Jewish parent celebrating Hanukkah all through my childhood so there is more to the story than just “non-Jew.” If you want me to revive and pass on cultural or secular Jewishness in my family, calling me the names I’ve been called this week is not the way to encourage that. I hope that the fervent discussion about the themes and issues raised in the essay can be useful to as many as possible.