Ethnocentric trance

by tamarjacobson

Images_27 My son called this morning to thank me for the fruit basket he just received for Rosh Hashanah. "Tell me, Mom," he complained, "Why must you send me so much food? There is no way on earth I will be able to eat all the fruit and nuts that’s in this basket! Just once, could you send me a card or something simple like that?" I laughed and jumped up and down. The perfect reaction from a perfect son to his perfectly Jewish mother on Rosh Hashanah!

One of the reasons I enjoyed celebrating holidays in Israel was because we were not in the minority. When it came time for Rosh Hashanah, all the schools, stores, why the whole country, closed down, and celebration was in the air. Fine clothes, food, cards, gifts, flowers, candles, and honey flowed everywhere.

When I came to America 18 years ago, my old minority days, growing up in Rhodesia, living in the diaspora of my youth, rose up and punched me in the stomach. Each Rosh Hashanah and Passover, in Buffalo, the loneliness and alienation was acute. One year, I bought myself a Rosh Hashanah greeting card and sent it around to all the staff at the Child Care Center requesting they sign it and wish me a Happy New Year! They were mortified! Some were grateful. I had brought to their attention the fact that there were religions other than Christian in their midst. I shook them out of their ethnocentric trance!

Now, just as a reminder, I am, in fact, a declared atheist. So why should I care? And yet I do. Go figure!

Even though my partner, Tom’s last name is Jacobson and his nose is as aquiline as can be, that does not make him Jewish. No sirree. The nose comes genetically from his being one sixteenth Chippewa Cree and his name? Well … Norway. Yes indeed. Norwegian. And every year he forgets the what, when and how of my Jewish holiday cravings. This cranks me. In particular because we do make such a fuss of Christmas. Months in advance we plan, prepare, buy the tree, decorate, wrap the millions of gifts, and even visit the Unitarian Church for the midnight service on Christmas Eve.  So why oh why can’t he remember – just once – one of my holidays? I mean, before I remind and whine and bug him about it? Oh, I know. He will come dashing in from work tonight bearing a card he rushed to pick up from the drugstore nearby as he was heading out, in a panic because he realized he missed it!

Now don’t get me wrong. I adore celebrating Christmas just as I would any other holiday from any religion or culture. I just love the idea of people getting together and celebrating community no matter what or who they are. I remember one year when our Christmas tree was decorated, aglow with lights, and gifts starting to pile up under it. I invited some friends over for the first night of Hanukkah to light some candles and eat sufganiyot with me. On the table by the Hanukkiyah stood a large wooden Buddha that Tom had brought me from China the summer before to add to my Buddha collection. Nag Champa was burning and filling the room with its pungent, spiritual odor. My favorite incense that I burn when I practice pranayama daily. I looked at the scene and smiled: Twinkling tree, glowing Hanukkah candles, dish of sufganiot, serene Buddha, and smoke twirling upwards from the incense – "perfect combination!" I thought.

And so, here it is. Rosh Hashanah again and the blues are starting to descend upon me. No greetings from work-mates. No greetings from friends and acquaintances. Why don’t people know that when I lived those 19 years in Israel, Rosh Hashanah was the only time we ever sent each other greeting cards? Why doesn’t anyone know this here, in Philadelphia? I feel driven to becoming an ardent believer, a religious fanatic, to huddle with my people across the seas. I long for family as I think of them all gathering together, sitting at a huge Rosh Hashanah dinner a few hours from now in Michmoret or up in the Galilee.

Oh dear, did I forget to mention that one of my new colleagues at work invited us to a Rosh Hashanah lunch tomorrow? Yesterday she asked me what I was doing for the holiday. I made some kind of a weird, comical facial gesture, and replied, "Weeping all alone" (Could you just die for me right here and now for the pathetic victim display?). "Oh well!" she declared, "You must come over and join our family for lunch on Saturday." To my dismay and embarrassment my eyes welled up with tears that, without any control, started to roll down my cheeks (did I ever tell you that I often clown instead of saying how I really feel?). I was caught!

And so, instead of moping around wiping the floor with a gloomy countenance and heavy heart, I think I will dash out to Chestnut Hill and buy a huge bouquet of flowers and, perhaps, a bottle of red wine. What the hay! I can ring in the Jewish New Year even if I am an ethnic minority. So what!

It is a New Year (Shana Chadasha) indeed. New friends opening their home to me, laughing kindly at my embarrassment and tears of gratitude yesterday. A new era. A time to put aside all those funky blues and feelings of alienation and simply rejoice in the community of a new, sweet world (olam matok).

Shana Tova (Happy New Year), if you choose to celebrate!

A year ago on Tamarika: Remembering Old Friends