By Susan DeMari
Hanukkah comes as the darkest season of the year is upon us, and reminds us of the conflict between separation and assimilation and of being a minority living amongst many. The Greeks sought to impose their culture upon the Jews by forbidding the observance of Shabbat, the proclamation of the New Moon and circumcision. Despite these external forces, our ancestors fought back and the inner light of Judaism could not be extinguished!!
Parashat Miketz (Torah portion of the week) almost always read during the week of Hanukkah, describes Joseph’s astonishing transition from a person in prison to a person in power. Pharaoh makes him the second in command over all of Egypt. He gives Joseph the clothing, ring, and chain that symbolize authority, an Egyptian name and an Egyptian wife.
The question is, as Joseph was able to move into a place of power, was he able to maintain his Jewish identity? It’s a good thing that Judaism is a religion that not only permits but encourages us to ask questions because Parashat Miketz and the story of Hanukkah raises a lot of questions. Do the accoutrements and authority given to Joseph make him an Egyptian? Can one look like a non-Jew, dress like a non-Jew, live like a non-Jew and still be a Jew? What makes a person Jewish? Is it clothing? Circumcision? Having a Jewish mother? Whom one marries? Whether one is shomer shabbat? All of the above? Some of them? And, above all, who gets to decide?
One of the answers this parsha provides is personified by Joseph. Rabbi Alex Israel describes Joseph not as an assimilated Jew, but rather as a “Jew who lives in Galut [exile].” Israel notes that Joseph “must obey the codes, the fashions and haircuts, the etiquette of Egyptian high society. He is fully integrated into that society; yet, at the same time, the name of God never leaves his lips, he upholds moral standards and a yearning for his homeland. Of all the sons of Jacob, Joseph is the only one who demands from his children – on oath – that they will take his bones out of Egypt and bury them in the Holy Land. Joseph has a strong sense of Jewish Identity. It is just that his Judaism differs vastly from that of his brothers.”
This message is particularly relevant for those of us, arguably the majority of Jews, who live in Galut in the United States. Many American Jews identify as Americans first and Jews second, or third, or not at all. But the fact is, most antisemites identify Jews as Jews regardless of whether or what they practice. Hanukkah, which comes so close every year to Christmas, can be a particularly fraught time for Jews, forcing them to confront the issue of their identity as Jews in a very joyously Christian Galut.
There is a deep parallel between the message that both Miketz and Hanukkah teach us; that deep down, Jews are always connected with God and with the Jewish people. We may not always manifest that connection in our clothing, our daily lives, or even in our choice of marriage partner. It can be risky to show our Jewish identity, particularly in the United States today. However, as I boldly stated at the beginning of this piece (whether it is based in the tradition of our history or the increase in antisemistim we face today), the inner light of Judaism cannot be extinguished by external forces. That is why we sing “Ani maamin.” It is why Jews in the Shoah went to their deaths reciting the Shema. It is why we not only light the candles on the Hanukkiah but proudly display that special menorah in our windows on this holiday.
There is something called the “pintele yid” in Judaism, a term meaning the “Jewish spark.” It is that tiny part of being a Jew that never quits, the little glint of Jewishness that is indestructible, that keeps you bound to the family. As we read parashat Miketz and as we celebrate the Festival of Hanukkah in 5783, let us commit ourselves to strengthening the pintele yid in our own lives and lighting the candles of the Hanukkiah with bravery and joy, and let us commit to finding ways to eradicate Antisemitism, which threatens the security of Jewish people and not live in Galut. Chag urim sameach – Happy Festival of Lights!
Susan DeMari is the Security Coordinator for Buffalo Jewish Federation. You can reach her at Sdemari@buffalojewishfederation.org.