Many of us celebrated Arvind Mahankali’s victory at the national spelling bee last May. Why? Arvind is not a MOT (Member of the Tribe). We celebrated because he won by spelling knaidel, those fluffy floaters we relish on Passover and Shabbat. Putting aside the proper spelling of knaidel, the fact that it appears in the dictionary and was included the spelling bee is one yardstick for how cool being Jewish is right now.
That has not always been the case. Chanukah commemorates a very different time in our history, when the government, aided by highly assimilated Jews, made a concerted effort to eliminate Jewish tradition and practice from public and private life.
Jewish identity has always been complicated. The first intermarriage takes place in the Torah when Esau marries two Hittite women to the consternation of his parents, Isaac and Rebecca (Gen. 26:34-35). The biblical prophets rebuke the Jews of their time for being unfaithful to God and the practices of their ancestors.
During the Maccabee period, some Jews totally assimilated into Greek culture, even undoing their circumcisions. Some Jews, such as the Dead Sea Scroll writers, isolated themselves from those with whom they disagreed. Others accommodated their faith and practice to contemporary culture to varying degrees reflecting almost, but not quite, the full spectrum between assimilation and isolation. This last category represented the main body of the Maccabee coalition. They fought for the core Jewish belief in one God and the core Jewish practices of Torah, kashrut and Shabbat. Yet their children and grandchildren carried both Greek and Hebrew names, much as we have English and Hebrew names today.
Fill in the specific details from any Jewish historic period and the story is much the same. The assimilationists and isolationists both ultimately fail to ensure Jewish continuity through the ages. The accommodationists, those who adroitly bridge religious integrity and wider cultural integration, somehow do. That we are still here today is proof that Jewish continuity is a balance between faithfulness to our ancient traditions and embracing the best of the larger cultures in which we find ourselves.
That is why what is happening this year is so exciting. A new holiday has been born: Thanksgivukkah. It is the quintessential Jewish American holiday, celebrating the first day of Chanukah on Thanksgiving. Both Chanukah and Thanksgiving celebrate thankfulness to God and the importance of mutual respect and religious pluralism. These are American values as much as Jewish ones. In fact, our Founding Fathers found them in the same Torah the Maccabees protected for posterity.
So much rides on our ability to find our balance between tradition and change. Being Jewish is cool, not just because Jewish expressions and foods, such as knaidel, are now part of American culture. Being Jewish is cool because we guard and transmit a timeless message for all humankind: Despite our differences, we are all made in God’s image and thus equally deserving of respect and the opportunity to live with dignity and freedom of conscience. That is what the Maccabees fought for, and so can we.
Rabbi Susan Grossman is the spiritual leader of Beth Shalom Congregation in Columbia and is a member of the Baltimore Board of Rabbis. The opinions expressed do not necessarily
reflect those of the Baltimore Board of Rabbis or its members.