Every year, I look forward to my Channukah care package, when my mom and sister round up Channukah treats, toys, and decorations and send them to me. Here in Pocatello, Idaho, Channukah has to be imported in, or it basically doesn’t exist. Over the years, I’ve found the few local retailers who carry the precious treasures of dreidels (small, plastic, single-colored) and nonspecific chocolate coins, and I’ve built up my supply of Channukah candles in case there’s a year I can’t find any in town. And sometimes, for fun, I will walk in to the local stores, past the poinsettias and Christmas tree ornaments and ask where the Channukah section is, just to see the confused looks of the sales associates.
Friday, December 18th is Temple Emanuel’s Channukah party. We have menorahs, we have a latke buffet, we have games of dreidel, and as always, we have wine. The one thing Temple Emanuel does not have at the moment, as membership ebbs and flows in this rural community, are any children congregants. So we try and import those in for our Channukah celebration as well, drawing from friends and associates in the Pocatello community.
There are a few categories of non-Jewish people in this community who orbit the Jewish population during our major holidays. There are the non-Jews such as I remember growing up in the Chicago area—happy to be Christian (or Muslim, or Hindu, or Buddhist, or…), and progressive, intellectual, and curious enough to want to expand their knowledge of other faiths and cultures for what they are.
However, it seems in this area there are a disproportionate number of non-Jews who claim an affiliation and connection with the Jewish faith, such as Messianic Jews and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons, or LDS as the more politically-correct term).
Christianity is a mystery to me sometimes; especially knowing about such historic realities as the first Council of Nicaea and the Burning Times. And it’s a little unsettling to know how many local non-Jews want to claim some Judaism for their very own, in a town where the 10 commandments are on display on the courthouse lawn and the hot debate between “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Holidays” clogs up the local news outlets.
But, this is how December in the Diaspora works. This is one of the times of year I find there is a lot of explaining to do. Explaining why I don’t celebrate Christmas, and explaining why it’s not OK to assume everyone does. Sometimes I feel like a novelty act; sometimes I feel like an amused religious historian. And I do enjoy the opportunity to talk to other people about Channukah and other Jewish traditions. Even if I have to break out “The Jewish Book of Why,” or contact my sister Sara, a Jewish educator, to make sure I have everything straight.
So on December 18, I hope Temple Emanuel can once again gather a crowd, and give some local kids and adults the fun chance to light a menorah, play dreidel, and eat some latkes made from potatoes that have made this state famous. And I will be proudly wearing my mom’s handmade Channukah stocking cap, brand new from this year’s care package.