Rabbi's Message, December 2014
Rabbi Jonathan Singer, Co-Senior Rabbi
Chanukah: A Celebration of Jewish Identity
On the walls of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, is a gorgeously intriguing painting by Gustave Klimt, most famous for his work The Kiss. It is one of two portraits that he did of his patron and possible paramour, Adel Block Bauer. The museum states that this portrait reflects Bauer’s social station in Vienna's cultural elite. It is also one of the many works of art stolen by the Nazis, and has only recently been returned to its rightful owners by the Austrian government.
Here in San Francisco, on the opposite edge of the continent, at the Museum of the Legion of Honor, hangs the portrait of another beautiful woman. She is the lady of the manor, Sybil, Countess of Rocksavage, grandly fitting into the Downton Abbey-like decor on display. What each picture has in common, though it may not be obvious to the casual observer, is that both these women were Jews.
Perhaps the museums do not want to dwell upon their subject's Jewish identity because their focus is on the artist. But, perhaps that lack of identification reflects either the museum curator’s subconscious discomfort with ethnic distinctiveness or the sitters desire to assimilate into the larger culture.
In the middle of the month, as Americans celebrate the winter holidays, you will have a choice to make. Will you let others in this beautifully diverse city know that you are proud to be a Jew, , even as, like the women in the portraits, you fully participate in the general life of our society? Besides being the parents who graciously make annual trips to their child's classroom to teach about Chanukah, or the Jew who brings latkes to the office winter party, there is one other simple yet important thing you can do to share the meaning of Chanukah with the greater society. As the Talmud teaches us, in times of safety, we should place a Chanukiah in our windows, and let our Jewish light shine out into the world.
From its inception, the celebration of Chanukah raised the question ofhow do we as Jews see ourselves in the greater culture that surrounds us. As a constant minority, will we be open and proud Jews or will we only express our Jewishness in private?
The Maccabees struggled against the forces of assimilation in their day. They were not zealots, desirous of cutting themselves off from the rest of the world. In fact, they made an alliance with the Romans which helped them to achieve victory over the Assyrian Greeks. Nor did they believe that our culture was better than all others. Ultimately they believed in restoring the independence of the Jewish people, so we could freely serve God in our own particular way. Their heroic struggle helped maintain our distinct identity that the Assyrians, in their desire to unite their empire, tried to obliterate. That we are still here today is partially due to the Macabees’ decision to not give in to forced assimilation into the larger Greek culture.
This why I believe, though others may protest otherwise, that Chanukah is no minor holiday. Yes, the tradition places few limitations on our behavior and the mitzvot are simple: light lights for eight nights and enjoy rich foods like latkes or suffganiot (jelly donuts). But, by celebrating this holiday, we are also reminded to retell the story of a heroic struggle to keep our Jewish light shining in the world as we proudly engage with the larger culture, bringing our values to the fore, while enjoying the blessings and wonders of all of God's creation.
The lesson of the Maccabees is one we at Emanu-El take very seriously and it reflects why membership and engagement with synagogue life is so important. Here we help our members to develop their identity as proud Reform Jews. We work to inspire the next generation to have the courage to share our belief in the holiness of life, to pursue justice and a partnership with God, while not shying away from being an active participant in the larger world. This encounter of Jewish values and beliefs with the general culture benefits us all. This year, we will bring our Emanu-El Chanukiah to Laurel Village at 5:30 pm on Wednesday December 17 and then to the Castro at 7:00 pm shining our light with joy and pride in our Jewish identity. Come join us for one of the celebrations. And I hope you put a Chanukiah in your window.