So far this year I haven’t talked at all about the holidays in my Holidailies posts. Â Part of that is because I’ve spent the past week climbing out of a hole of pity to focus on the good things and the things I appreciate and the things I need to do for myself, which has been really important for me. Â However, some of it also has to do with the fact that for the first time ever I will not be spending part of December with my parents and/or siblings in Florida. Â And it makes me very, very sad. Â But, it’s my reality this year and that’s really all there is to it. Â Sitting with it and being a little sad, but setting it aside to focus on other things…
I’m not religious, but I do strongly identify as Jewish. Â It’s not about religiosity for me, it’s just about who I am at my core. Â The values I was taught, my secular and religious education, the heritage that surrounded me, my family, the history of the people who came before me, are all an integral part of who I am today and I wouldn’t trade them for anything. Â But, when thinking about my relationship with Judaism, there are some things that resonate particularly strongly.
My freshman year of college I took a philosophy class called “Science and Religion” with Professor Robert Cohen, who was on both the Physics and Philosophy faculty. Â By way of introduction in our first class, he referred to himself as a Jew by tradition rather than belief and that made a lot of sense to me. Â In a conversation a short time later, I shared that statement with my father and he agreed with it, going a little further in his own inimitable way and saying, “I don’t believe in god, but who’s more Jewish than me?” Â And it’s really very true. Â My father is about as Jewish as they come, but a true believer he is not. Â On the other hand, I have my mother, who is on the Board of the synagogue and is the only reason my father ever steps foot into High Holy Day services each year. Â My mom lights Shabbat candles every Friday night and is the keeper of the flame (pardon the pun) as far as Jewish traditions go in our family.
I have a Jewish education that goes from kindergarten (I went to a Jewish day school before I went to public school), through Bat Mitzvah, through Confirmation, through Post-Confirmation (high school graduation). Â I have a minor in Judaic Studies, two years of college level Yiddish and did my senior thesis on Yiddish Film. Â I think it’s fair to say, it’s in my bones, in my heart and in my soul. Â I’m Jewish. Â But belief in a deity? Â Not so much. Â And even if there is a god of some sort or stripe (or many), all of the divisiveness and hatred that’s been created in the name of religion is so not what god (or God or whoever) had in mind. Â But, I digress…
I come to this post because as I was lighting the Chanukah candles tonight and said the blessing, as I watch them flicker even as I type this, my heart is full and I have a great sense of peace. Â Because it’s not really the reasons why as Jews we light candles and say a prayer (one day’s worth of oil lasting eight days…a miracle!), that is the significant thing for me. Â It’s what it evokes. Â I use a menorah given to me by my mother. Â I use candles, cobbled together from the many Chanukah care packages she’s sent to me over the years. Â And I light the candles and it reminds me of every time I’ve ever done it before, most often with my family. Â The words in my mouth as I say the prayer feel just right. Â The smell of the burning wax, the glow of the candles as they burn down to nothing. Â It feels exactly right deep down and essential to who I am.
So, this Chanukah I’ll light the candles each night and I’ll say the prayer that I’ve said so many times before and I’ll watch the candles burn and I’ll think of my family and of my friends and of millions of people around the world doing the same thing and I know that my Judaism is part of something far bigger than me, but also only mine.
Why do I light candles for eight nights? Â Because it’s my tradition.