It came up this year, with a granddaughter of a bit over two years old, someone who is a real person who can sponge up lines from stories and songs. And I, as the Jewish grandmother involved, felt that at least I might get clearer about my own thoughts about the subject.
It started out this way. When I was a little girl, I loved the synagogue; I loved Sunday school with the reliability of rituals and dressing up and of course food; I loved the stories because to me they were like fairy tales. As Bruno Bettelheim suggested in The Uses of Enchantment the fairy tale at its best identifies with childhood experiences of conflict, powerlessness, and promises--through the fairy godmother or some sort of magical intervention--a way out of what seems impossibly dense forests of feeling and being lost.
For me it was like that, the stories of Jewish holidays were magical; there was suffering and struggle and then there was intervention. And it was God, instead of the fairy godmother, but for me the equation was similar. Since my own family was conflicted about worship, I stayed in love with the celebrations and the music and the food, but I kept my distance from the religious part of worshipping any kind of absolute authority.
I particularly loved the story of Hanukkah, because it involved the physical heroism of actual Jews. The Maccabees were totally radical; there were a tribe, a family, a kind of gang, but for good and not evil. I was a Jewish girl from a Jewish part of Brooklyn and I associated being Jewish (yes, I know there is some prejudice here, but it was my experience) with being studious and smart, but not with being strong or in any way a hero on the level of physical prowess. So that made me enjoy even more the militaristic patriotic anthem both in Hebrew and in English. It made me feel happier even to identify with being Jewish and the strong guys of old.
Then came my children, though first came my Italian husband who said he was an atheist though I didn't believe him (you know, once a Catholic always a Catholic? Or at least so I thought then). I wanted Jewish children but that even now seems kind of silly; I married outside the faith so what could I expect. Although the least we could do was share a way of celebrating the important holidays.
Passover was the easiest because for me it lent itself to organizing an alternative Seder--keeping the story to read around the table, the traditional foods, and creating a text that had to do with inner and outer aspects of freedom. Me being a therapist and also immersed in healing my own wounds for what seemed like hundreds of years, there were always themes that could work for symbols of struggle and exodus. However, some of the other holidays were not so simple.
Our daughter, for instance, when she was four, went into a Hanukkah story time at the Reform temple in our neighborhood. She came out, her face beaming. "Mommy", she said, "Guess what, there was an army and God was on its side!" Oy, said I to myself: this is not okay with me. Peace on earth has literally nearly always been compelling to me, starting with my still in one piece essay called "My Plea for Peace" I wrote about disarmament at 15.
That aspect of the celebration cancelled, we drifted into a kind of non-meaningful repetition of some of the songs and prayers I snuck in because I remembered the Hebrew and loved their sounds. We did latkes, and we lit the Menorah, let me say when we remembered. Not good, in any real way, but it was good enough to have my kids feeling fondly about the holiday.
Now we get another shot at telling the story of Hanukkah. And so what better place to discuss this than in a hot tub with a couple of Jews who take kindly to my questioning? For one, they see the story as a metaphor for faith and hope, for the notion of putting some energy of good into the world and perhaps it taking off.
We had a kind of dialogue about it and I shared my own version of faith as working in the dark, without evidence of how things will go exactly. I see this with patients in psychotherapy, that when I find a thread that seems profound and true, I try to follow it, keeping my intention directed there. The truth is that is how I feel about miracles: when things look very bleak, when there is a thread of meaning and understanding, sometimes the willingness to work together in the dark, can be transforming and in ways a miracle.
So then, the Jewish people were controlled by another people who wanted them to believe the way they did. And the Jews said no; they wanted to be free to believe what they believed. And this group of guys called the Maccabbees, got together to lead a fight for freedom. And then there was more hope and more light and that is what we celebrate. Sometimes hope, along with working hard and fighting hard, can lead to more light, more understanding, and of course good food.
Faith is an interesting subject in today's times, when so many people use faith-based answers for personal and global problems, while they don't have the faith to look into the power of dialogue, and of working out conflicts, even in the darkness.
This seems like a pretty good subject for our time. Meanwhile I'm enjoying the fact that Christmas and Hanukkah coincide. I like the idea of seeing the Christmas story as a metaphor, and those of other religions in our midst. Perhaps we could share in their meaning and gifts as well.
Speaking of miracles!