Last night we started lighting Hanukkah candles. Even if you’re not Jewish, you may have seen some lit menorahs, if you were out, and if you live in a neighborhood where Jews live, because the tradition is that we put our menorahs in windows. We put them there so that people can see them; we put them there so that people will know we’re Jews.
The tradition is that we do this at the darkest time of the year.
This year we do it just a little more than a month after the brutal shooting in the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, where worshipers were slaughtered because they were Jewish, being Jewish in the world.
Last night we lit one candle for the first night—well, two, if you count the shamash, which we lit just to help us light the first one. Either way, it wasn’t a lot of light.
Should we be in the windows, too?
Every year at the conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs there is at least one panel session about whether Jewish writers ought to think of ourselves as Jewish writers or just as writers.
The arguments are the same arguments each year, too: if we publish in “Jewish” magazines and anthologies, we ghettoize ourselves; if we try to publish “Jewish stuff” in “regular” magazines, we will probably get rejected; if we publish “regular stuff” in “regular magazines” we lose something of ourselves.
People in a lot of different marginalized communities have these same debates. Maybe we should have them all together one year.
Religion is a largely invisible thing, day-to-day. Unless you wear a star of David or a hamsa or a yarmulke or a black suit and a big black fedora (or unless you fill your windows with Hanukkah candles), for the most part you look like anybody else. You look like any other, for example, White or Black or Middle Eastern or Asian or Latinx American.
This is “passing.” Which is the same word people use to mean “not failing.”
Of course, as we learned once again in Pittsburgh this year, you only pass until you don’t pass anymore.
I have a strange academic job in that I teach creative writing, like a lot of writers, but I do it not in an English department but in Georgetown’s Jewish studies program. (At Georgetown we call it the Center for Jewish Civilization, for maximum dramatic effect.)
I teach pretty much like a “regular” creative writing professor. When I teach fiction, I teach plot and character and dialogue and voice and pacing and all the rest. But, because I’m in the Center for Jewish Civilization, all the fiction we read is Jewish. When I teach poetry, I teach line and stanza, repetition and movement, form and content. But we read all Jewish poetry because I’m in the Center for Jewish Civilization.
I have been in the habit of saying that these classes are like hummus. (I have a very good recipe for hummus and eat it just about every day.) I say that the craft part of the course (character and stanza, plot and line, etc.) is the tahini, and that the Jewish part is like the lemon. The idea is that you can’t leave the tahini out and still call it hummus, but that you could leave the lemon out and still get by.
I’m increasingly doubtful about this idea.
One of the things Hanukkah is famous for is the way that Jews are always talking about how not-important Hanukkah is. “It’s not the Jewish Christmas,” we say. “It’s a relatively minor holiday.”
Still. Shavuot is a major festival, and most Jews don’t even know when it is. Sukkot is a major festival and most Jews don’t do it. Passover we generally do, but behind (mostly) closed doors. And many of us have our menorahs in the windows right now.
You should walk through your neighborhood and see all the many kinds and shapes and styles, all the candles lit. (Tonight there will be more than last night.)
Some of these menorahs we’ve inherited; we’ve carried them across generations and oceans. In the same suitcases with our stories.
I’ve been wearing a yarmulke out in the world ever since the shooting in Pittsburgh. At first I wore it out of pain and solidarity and defiance, and since then I’ve continued wearing it, increasingly just because I like it.
Wearing a yarmulke every day means that everything I do is Jewish. I’m a Jewish teacher, Jewish husband and father, Jewish writer, Jewish person driving, Jewish person standing and walking and talking. When someone sees me do something, they think, “A Jewish person just did that.”
I don’t pass.
Sometimes it’s my favorite thing when Jewish writers write about being Jewish. When they put their Jewishness in the window. Then it’s like I’m at my window and they’re at theirs and we can see each other and there isn’t a whole dark world in between.
The ancient rabbinic school of Shammai held that we should light the entire menorah, all eight candles, on the first night and then reduce the number by one on each subsequent night, until they’re all gone when Hanukkah is over. The school of Hillel held that we should begin with one and increase each night until the menorah is full.
Hillel’s argument won the day—the millennia, actually, stretching on and on—because of a core principle in Judaism: that the light should always increase.
David Ebenbach is the author of eight books of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction, including, most recently, the novel How to Mars (Tachyon Publications, 2021) and the poetry collection Some Unimaginable Animal (Orison Books, 2019). He teaches at Georgetown University. Visit him at www.davidebenbach.com. (updated 6/2021)
Ebenbach founded the AGNI blog in 2015 and edited it until 2019.