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Christmas, the eighth night, and me

I’m not exactly sure why we celebrate Christmas rather than Hanukkah: we’re a secular family with roots in both traditions. It’s possible that being in Northern Europe (and for my parents, North America before that) just made Christmas the easy default. Christian hegemony is another reason why defaults really matter: the reason Christianity is culturally centered in these places has a long and violent history, often at the expense of the people I’m descended from.

When my great grandfather arrived in the US in earnest, the White Army’s pogroms in Ukraine behind him, he chose to live secularly, down to shortening his last name to Anglicize it. Although it fell short of pogroms, America was not a welcoming place for Jews. Between the Klan, Henry Ford, the mass media, and associations of Jews with the bolsheviks, the interwar period was particularly hostile.

As I raise my child today, a hundred years later, it’s still not a welcoming place. A quarter of hiring managers don’t want to further Jewish candidates because “Jews have too much power and control”. I’ve personally found myself in conversations about why Kanye West - a Hitler fan - is supposedly in the right. Even among supposedly inclusive people, surprising old tropes about Jews are sometimes repeated as fact. I’ve also been told, quite politely, many times, that I’m going to Hell because I wasn’t baptized.

All of which makes me want to reclaim that Jewish heritage both for myself and for my baby. The answer here isn’t one or the other: it’s a “yes and” approach. His mother has a Christian heritage; mine includes Christianity and Judaism, as well as strong roots in the largest Muslim nation in the world. It’s also complicated for me, because, to be clear, I don’t believe in any higher power. I’m interested in holding onto the cultural traditions and the sense of belonging of the people who led to me, and to my baby; I can’t (and wouldn’t want to) assimilate into a faith I don’t hold.

I suppose really what I want is to feel more connected to my ancestors. This is the exact opposite of what I wanted when I was younger: I wanted to be my own person, undefined by someone else’s actions or traditions. My perspective has changed slightly to one of wanting to understand the traditions and beliefs of my ancestors, and perpetuate a sense of belonging to something other than an established cookie-cutter default. I want my child to feel more connected than I was; not so much to believing in a deity, but to who came before him, and their struggles.

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