Holiday Season

Last week my father remembered an Orthodox classmate from law school who got an interview at a prestigious Baltimore firm that had no Jewish partners or employees. “How’d it go?,” my father asked.

“I had to tell them about September,” he said.

This came up in a discussion, provoked by a lecture in my Ethnic Studies class, of whether or not retention of ethnic markers important to one’s self-image could get in the way of surviving and thriving in the U.S.A. I was arguing that it could; for example, in a job interview – what if you’re wearing clothes of your home country, giving the unintentional suggestion that you won’t relate to American clientele? What if you eat kosher or halal, and you have to tell a potential employer even before you meet that you can’t be taken out to lunch in any of the usual places?

When I left dayschool for public school, I was inducted into the annual chagrin of inevitable first interactions with new teachers: “Hi, you don’t know my name yet, I’m going to be missing many more days than appear as holidays on the school calendar, and it’s really hard for me to make up the work during this time, especially on those holidays for which it’s imperative that I reunite with the rest of the family in New Jersey.”
In general, I boil a pot of Righteous September Indignation and leave it to simmer all season. Giving a test on Yom Kippur is against school rules! I can’t attend class until 8pm because the “night before” Rosh Hashana is Rosh Hashana!

It didn’t occur to me until this summer – when I was in China, dodging pork, of course – that part of my wide-sweeping indignation stemmed from a personal resistance to coming out as “religious” to people I barely knew. My discomfort with that, I think, stems from a basic disconnect between how I see my Jewish observance (completely normal) and how someone else conceivably could (utterly wacko). In high school, I explored this middle territory in mischief – telling a gym teacher, when I’d forgotten my sweatpants, that a Jewish holiday required skirt-wearing, and so forth – but the motivation for this joking around was a sincere uncertainty. (As, I find, is usually the case.) Am I “religious”? Do I get to decide that, or do others judge it? It’s not a tag with particularly positive associations among my friends and teachers and at this liberal school. No wonder I get all tied up in knots trying to explain it to strangers.

In China, a combination of things – announcing daily, “I do not eat pork, I cannot, my religion”; occasionally professing to be Muslim for simplicity’s sake (Islam being common where I lived); and being in a position of scrutinizing, constantly, another culture’s idiosyncratic, centuries-old traditions – opened my eyes, ta da!, to the fact that other people might think of me as religious. Ergo as weird as other religious people. And that they might be right.

This was huge for me. While I’ve spent, in sum, probably a years’ worth of hours drinking in the spectacle of the weirdest religious elements of my tradition – “In eighth grade, I had an entire test on what to do if a mouse brings leavened products into your house during Passover, ha ha ha,” etc. – I had actually failed to process what it all looked like from the outside…partly because I lacked perspective, and partly because it would have hurt to imagine non-Jews and less observant Jews seeing my observance as weird.

Complicated, eh? What do you think?

–Anna Schnur-Fishman

6 comments on “Holiday Season

  1. Laura on

    Winter holiday season not only doesnt refer exactly to Christmas or new years day, but also doesnt discount valentines day, either Valentine’s Day is February 14, which is still in the winter season for the Northern Hemisphere. Basically, the winter holiday season can refer to any time between December 1 and March 1, with there being a temporary lull between mid January and early February.

    Guaranteed ROI

  2. Yonatan on

    Well, the exraordinary fine line that runs between “religiousness” and “nationality” or “ethnicity” or just folklore in Judism makes it hard to define whether one is this or that… Doing strange things that “normal” folk don’t do may tag us as religious even if we see ourselves as merely clinging to preserve our sense of (ethnic) identity. And we do that by doing pretty strange stuff sometimes, but if we try to uncover the logic behind those odd actions in a way that will make them look sensible and usefull we might relate to them as a “philosophy of life” rather than as “word of god” and as such they will be more easily explained to strangers. In that way they also lose the religious halo that surrounded them and become a nice thing we can understand.

  3. Karen on

    Or could it be that growing up is partly about waking up to the shocking reality that what goes on inside one’s own home is not necessarily what goes on in the world. If one grows up in an observant home and in Jewish day schools, then the shock is that not everyone does that and to others you are ‘religious’. If one grows up in an household where no one talks about feelings, then it’s a shock to realize that those in the outside world talk about feelings. If one’s original household is abusive, well then it’s a shock to realize—just a thought.

  4. susan on

    re: coming out as a religious jew …
    i just listened to a shrink, with the last name Mohammud, talk about how difficult it is to have that last name. there is so much projection, by clients, by americans more generally, when they hear that name. ‘it would be easier to have 3 noses,’ he said. the roomful of shrinks agreed.

  5. Anna on

    Yonatan —
    Yes, exactly. I’ve always “read” my own Jewish practices as ethnic, and I consistently relate to other ethnic groups more so than other faith communities. I guess what startled me was realizing that all of these customs and practices, like keeping kosher, singing Hebrew and Yiddish songs, and boiling cookies in honey on Rosh Hashana, were unquestionably borne of religion – and not knowing how I felt about it.

    Last month, a lot of people boiled cookies in honey with religious intention, and a lot of people did it “ethnically.” Spiritually might be a third category. Which ones am I doing? Not sure – but I’m so interested by these markers that are, often un-self-consciously, employed by a diverse group of people for a diverse set of reasons. For how many reasons is challah eaten on any given Friday night in America? For how many reasons does a bar mitzvah happen?

    Interesting that you said “lose the religious halo that surround them and become a nice thing we can understand”….it’s an interesting question, right, whether they have to lose that halo in order for less-believing Jews to enjoy them, and whether that’s even possible?

  6. Anna on

    Karen —
    One of my Eureka-est moments with regard to this topic occurred in a completely unrelated discussion with a fellow foreigner in China, about the feeling that one is a lot like one’s mother.

    I was giving the example, “On the night before Passover, when you’ve already cleaned the house, you do a symbolic last search for bread crumbs, so my parents used to hide chunks of bread in certain rooms and my brother and I would go hunt for them. But my father had to hide them, because when my mother did it, I would go straight to the hiding spots with this uncanny knowledge like ‘oh, she definitely put one beneath the paper mâché pig tchotchka.’”

    “You did what on the night before Passover?”

    “Yeah, you use a feather and wooden spoons, and scoop them….” Suddenly I stopped. My mother loves wooden spoons, only uses wooden cooking spoons, I thought. And we had chickens that she liked to include in as many religious rituals as possible.

    What if…?

    Yeah, I definitely think that we don’t credit enough influence to the subculture of a household. Good point.

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