When Jews stood up for the right to be unique

When Jews stood up for the right to be unique

I love to walk. One of my frequent routes, encompassing both the Lower East Side and Chinatown, provides an interesting contrast which has bothered me for a while.

The streets of Chinatown are full of Chinese people speaking Chinese. On weekends, Columbus Park, bordered by Bayard, Baxter, and Mulberry streets, is full of mah-jongg players and various Chinese musical ensembles as though they were in Tian Tan Park in Beijing. And of course there are multitudinous Chinese restaurants, markets, herbal medicine shops, and other places with Chinese signage.

At the end of Canal Street, where it goes under the Manhattan Bridge, you cross into the Lower East Side, where many of our forbearers came from. Do you hear the mamaloshen, any klezmer or other music associated with Yiddishkeit? Can you easily find a kosher deli? You know the answer.

Look for stores with signs either in Hebrew or Yiddish. They are hard to find. The store on Strauss Square where my father bought my tallit for my bar mitzva is gone. The Forward Building, at the base of Seward Park with its busts of Jewish labor heroes such as Marx and Engels, is a luxury condominium with a 24-hour doorman.

If you want to learn about this area, take one of the many walking tours and visit the Tenement Museum. Unlike Chinatown, visible evidence of Jewish culture is hard to find.

What happened? Assimilation happened. After all, wasn’t that the goal in die goldene medina? We achieved it.

What does assimilation have to do with Hanukka? Is Hanukka about the miracle of the oil, or perhaps about something more significant: the refusal of some Jews to assimilate into Greek culture and their successful revolt against the leading world power of the time?

Writing in The New York Times, Howard Jacobson, winner of this year’s prestigious Man Booker prize in England for The Finkler Question, belittled Hanukka as a holiday. The Maccabees “sound Jewish. Scottish Jewish but still Jewish,” he quipped. “‘Hasmoneans’ rang and rings no bells.”

He finds that the Book of Maccabees “doesn’t quite feel authentic” because there’s “something a touch suspicious…about our defeating the Syrian-Greek army.” The story of a Jewish military victory sounds to him like “wish fulfillment.”

Thus, to Jacobson, today’s Hanukka is a flawed holiday. “The cruel truth is that Hanukkah is a seasonal festival of light in search of a pretext and as such is doomed to be forever the poor relation of Christmas.” He suggests assimilating Hanukka into Christmas (which many American Jews may have done).

Readers responded. The best response was from Jerold Auerbach, professor emeritus of history at Wellesley. “How sad that Howard Jacobson cannot celebrate the true meaning of Hanukka that its nightly candles illuminate: the triumphant survival of the Jewish people, in our own time as in antiquity, amid the enemies — from Antiochus to Ahmadinejad — who would destroy them,” he wrote.

Jeff Dunetz, editor/publisher of The Lid blog complains that this minor holiday is continually hijacked in the name of “multicultural rubbish”:

Only part of the story was the Maccabees fight for getting the Greeks out of Israel, and the cleansing and dedication of the Temple. A huge part of the Chanukah Story was about a civil war amongst the Jews. Matthias Maccabee and his boys were fighting other Jews who had turned away from their faith by combining it with Greek/Hellenistic practices. The resulting assimilation caused a loss of Jewish faith and tradition, and finally laws against practicing Jewish ritual.

Nevertheless, Hanukka, a holiday about Jews fighting against assimilation, is celebrated by “ACLU-types” as a victory of “politically correct multiculturalism.” But America is not a “melting-pot,” he continues. It is “more like a gumbo where all the elements are in the same pot and existing together, but maintaining [their] original form. As Americans, we are all different and we must celebrate those differences, not merge them into one hodgepodge of progressive mediocrity, celebrating everything at the same time, while truly celebrating absolutely nothing.”

Dunetz has a point, and residents of Chinatown seem to get it.

Consider the New York Times story about the Jewish Community Legacy Project. Irving Greenblum, born in Mexico to immigrant Russian Jews, is “the last Greenblum who lives in Laredo,” Texas. His four sons have all moved to larger cities. Greenblum said that, with a dwindling population, the rituals of Jewish life are fading in Laredo.

What would have happened if the Maccabees lost, leaving the Hellenized Jews with the upper hand? Would Judea have gone the way of Laredo and would there even been a Greenblum in Laredo?

The answers may be in Columbus Park and Strauss Square.

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