Holiday Equality In Israel

Growing up in Pittsburgh, I often felt lonely and excluded. I didn’t feel I really belonged, even though I was the third generation of my mother’s maternal family to be born in Da Burg. It had to do with being thoroughly, utterly, and irreversibly Jewish.

The Fort Pitt Tunnel (photo credit: Varda Meyers Epstein)

The Fort Pitt Tunnel (photo credit: Varda Meyers Epstein)

I have always loved being a Jew. Being Jewish is what has always defined me more than anything. During the 18 years of my life that were lived in the Diaspora, I felt Jewish, but I also felt OTHER. Alien.

Going to public school in a mixed group was difficult for me. I stuck out. My culture was different. I was the third grader with the copy of David Copperfield tucked under her arm. I didn’t care about hopscotch or jump rope. I wanted to read. I belonged to the People of the Book.

Every December, my father told me not to sing the X-mas songs in school. So I didn’t. But I didn’t do it in a polite and unobtrusive way. I did it with defiance and pride, my arms crossed in front of my chest, my lips tight shut, looking smug.

But I had to walk to and from school and see the trees all lit up in the windows and yards. I had to see all the X-mas specials on TV and the X-mas window decorations at the department stores in downtown. We got off school for X-mas but had to miss school on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year, even though I lived in a Jewish neighborhood and most of my classmates were Jews.

If I went to the mom and pop store, down the street from us, because my mother ran out of milk, old Mrs. Zuckerman would pinch my cheek as I said, “Charge it,” and ring up my purchase. Still, all the items on the shelves were decorated with Santas at X-mas time.

The Squirrel Hill Cafe (photo credit: Varda Meyers Epstein)

The Squirrel Hill Cafe (photo credit: Varda Meyers Epstein)

Growing up in Squirrel Hill (the non-Jews sometimes called it “Kike’s Peak), I experienced cognitive dissonance: a gap between what I was and what I experienced all around me.

In a funny way, it hurt. I didn’t like not belonging. I wanted to be in a place where I belonged. And as time went on and my political and religious sensibilities developed, I knew I had to go live in Israel. It wasn’t just a mitzvah, a commandment, it was a prerogative.

And that is what I did. I left the States as soon as I could decently do so. I was 18. A kid. But it was the right choice.

I thought of all this today when I saw this wonderful clip, Chanuka Rights, by Six13, my fave Jewish a capella group.

The lyrics suggest a sense of holiday inequality, as experienced by American Jews in America. And while the music was fabulous, I found I wanted to smack myself upside the head as I listened to the singers kvetch about the inequality of living as a Jew in a Christian culture. It made no sense to me.

It used to be hard to come to Israel. It was expensive, but that was the least of it. My great great grandfather came with his family to Palestine during the Ottoman Empire. The Turks didn’t allow Jewish men entrance to Palestine. So he hid in a coffin, my great great grandmother playing the part of the mournful widow. He squeaked in.

But today? All you need to do to live a Jewish life in the Jewish Holy Land is to buy a ticket and pack your belongings.

Traditional Chanuka oil lamp (photo credit: The Real Jerusalem Streets www.realjerusalemstreets.com)     Sufganiyot in a bakery display window.     (photo credit: The Real Jerusalem Streets     www.rjstreets.com)

Traditional Chanuka oil lamp
(photo credit: The Real Jerusalem Streets
www.rjstreets.com)

I don’t understand the concept of agitating for equality as a Jew in a foreign land. Because that’s all America will ever be for Jews. That’s all any place other than Israel will be for the Jews.

Street decorations at Chanuka time in Israel. (photo credit: The Real Jerusalem Streets www.rjstreets.com)

Street decorations at Chanuka time in Israel.
(photo credit: The Real Jerusalem Streets
www.rjstreets.com)

If you want to live as a Jew with your head held high, the place to do it is in Israel: where the culture reflects Jewish and not Christian heritage.

This time of year, we don’t see Santa in a sleigh in some marvelous pyrotechnic display on a neighbor’s lawn. We see slim neon menorahs dotting our highways, and oil lamps in the windows.

We see, instead of chocolate Santas, candies repackaged in dreidel-shaped boxes, and Israeli Chanuka doughnuts called “sufganiyot” in the display windows of every bakery.

Sufganiyot in a bakery display window. (photo credit: The Real Jerusalem Streetswww.rjstreets.com)

Sufganiyot in a bakery display window.
(photo credit: The Real Jerusalem Streets
www.rjstreets.com)

Not a single Santa anywhere, except perhaps in Nazareth or Bethlehem, where Santa is better appreciated by the largely Christian population in these Israeli towns.

Lighting the Menorah in the local shopping mall. (photo credit: The Real Jerusalem Streetswww.rjstreets.com)

Lighting the Menorah in a Jerusalem shopping mall.(photo credit: The Real Jerusalem Streets
www.rjstreets.com

Chanuka is an unpretentious holiday in a modest and humble country that doesn’t commercialize things as they do in the States. But it gives me a sweet feeling of belonging, noting all those details marking everyday items with the signs that Chanuka is nigh.

Best of all, my children are off school for the majority of the holiday. We take it easy, eat latkes with sour cream and salsa (!), and spend oodles of time together. We don’t hear carols on the radio. My kids don’t know the lyrics.

I’m still American in a lot of ways. In fact, I work for an American nonprofit, Kars4Kids, by way of a virtual office. My work colleagues are all Americans. But I am American in Israel. And that’s the way I like it.

I will love Pittsburgh forever. It was where I was born. It’s where my mother is. A piece of my heart will always be there.

The Big Blue Slide in Frick Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. An inseparable part of my childhood. (photo credit: Varda Meyers Epstein)

The Big Blue Slide in Frick Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. An inseparable part of my childhood. (photo credit: Varda Meyers Epstein)

But Israel is my home and it could be your home, too. If you want Jewish holidays to have a fair shake, that is.

It’s totally up to you.

Dreidel-shaped candy packaging, to honor the Chanuka season.  (photo credit: The Real Jerusalem Streets www.rjstreets.com)

Dreidel-shaped candy packaging, to honor the Chanuka season.
(photo credit: The Real Jerusalem Streets
www.rjstreets.com)

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Varda Epstein

A third-generation-born Pittsburgher on her mother’s mother’s side, Varda moved to Israel 36 years ago and is a crazy political animal who spams people with right wing political articles on Facebook in between raising her 12 children and writing about education as the communications writer at Kars for Kids a Guidestar gold medal charity.