Culture Without Conflict

A Tanach
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Judaism and I have a strange relationship. If we see each other at a party, he’ll buy me a drink, but somehow I’ll lose his number. And next month I’ll see him again, and I’ll make up some excuse for why I never called.

Judaism is an attractive stranger on the train, a waiter who smiles at your order. I wonder what it would be like to be an observant Jew, to hold the Tanakh reverently on Shabbat, and to thank God for the daily miracles that, deep down, I know are just happenstance. I know that behind the façade of a prayer shawl is too much investment in ancient words, and too much rejection of self reliance.

So I stopped wondering. I ignore the possibility of all that Semitic history weighing me down like a deadbeat lover, because I know that there isn’t any metaphysical substance in centuries of tradition.

As a result, I felt the slightest bit conflicted when I touched the Shamas to the first candle on the menorah last week. I surprised myself by reciting the prayer by heart, fumbling only on the l’hadlik in the prayer for lighting the candles. Though a devout atheist doesn’t often pray to a god imagined, but the Hebrew flowed from my mouth like honey out of Canaan.

Growing up, I never went to temple except for the occasional bar mitzvah, but every year my family sojourned to my aunt’s house in Fairfield. We surrounded ourselves with plastic dreidels and half-fried, half-baked latkes. Each kid got one present, rather than getting the eight at home. My parents didn’t even own a menorah. My aunt lit a felt one in the window along with the brass menorah in the centre of the table. One year my uncle had to stop my cousin from toasting a piece of challah on it.

But Chanukah is the one time a year my family has culture. The only time we remember a history that is greater than my grandmother’s stories of growing up in Worcestershire, Mass., than my aunt and uncle’s high school sweetheartdom, than all of us. When we get together to acknowledge a movement greater than our birthdays or weddings. And it doesn’t take believing in any higher power than history to do so.