When miraculous meets mundane: Chanukah.
On our first meeting, Peter, a professional acquaintance of my wife, made a point of identifying himself as a Jew. He read with difficulty the Hebrew word "mizrach" on our wall decoration and knew what it meant, remarking with some charm that at least he remembered something
from his bar mitzvah, even if he hadn't been in a synagogue since. He seemed comfortable about being Jewish and, potentially, good grist for our mill, since we like to bring people in.
But the next time my wife saw him, it was on his turf, where he made the Jewish connection again but took a harsh tone, ranting against religious Jews as if he didn't know she was one. As it turned out, in fact, his mental image of a religious Jew was so set in cement that he hadn't actually realized that my hip, creative wife is someone who "does all those things."
"You mean you keep kosher?" he asked, amazed when she identified herself. "And you don't turn lights on and off on Saturday?" he went on in dismay. "You mean," he burst out in a final paroxysm of frustration and horror, "you don't tear toilet paper on Saturday?"
My stepdaughter works as a legal secretary. One of her co-workers, she reports, answered her question, "Are you Jewish?" by saying, "No, but my parents are." (Sigh.) When my stepdaughter mentioned that we live as traditional Jews, her coworker, bent out of shape by such monstrous tidings, could think of only one thing to say. "You mean," he exclaimed with belligerent surprise, "you don't tear your toilet paper on the Sabbath?"
My elderly aunt comes to visit regularly. She has a kind Jewish heart, but she feels hostile to our Jewish observance and expresses it by asking questions. "Let me just ask you one thing," she begins, as if she doesn't already know the answer. "If I take this spoon" - she picks the wooden serving spoon out of the chicken gravy so we'll know which spoon she means - "and I put it in a glass of milk, you mean to tell me you can't use the spoon afterward?"
So there we go again, flailing around on the arcane edges of the laws of kashrut
, trying to explain at the perimeter what derives its significance at the faraway center where Auntie refuses to go. No amount of information ever seems to penetrate. "Let me ask you a question," she says, changing the subject. "You observe the Sabbath, right? Is there a reason why you have to sit beforehand and tear the toilet paper?"
So I am beginning to understand that a lot of people think that traditional Jews are gnome-like creatures who keep to themselves and spend large amounts of time every week tearing toilet paper to prepare for Shabbat.
"Is it possible," inquires my sardonic stepdaughter, "that the natives have never heard of Kleenex?"
The bottom line here, though, and it is a painful one, is that many non-religious Jews consider the Jewish religion a form of nonsense at best, at worst something harmful, and either way are hostile to it. They don't even bother to have for it the modicum of indifferent respect as an "alternate lifestyle" that they might have for, say, homosexuality or bicoastal marriage.
My point here is not to defend toilet-paper tearing. It's worth remembering in passing, though, that part of the genius of Judaism is to connect even trivialities to a greater meaning or a larger good. Since tearing is a kind of work not permitted on the Sabbath, tearing toilet paper beforehand might create, for those who do it, a reminder on the Sabbath that the seventh day is different from the six working days.
But, while tearing the toilet paper and worrying about where the spoons go may not qualify as dada, neither are they the essential activities of Judaism, and Peter and Auntie know it. Then why their hostile reductionism? What is it that they want? And what should my response be?
Though I have no absolute answers to these questions, I do have a theory, cleverly disguised as an article of faith.
It's the theory of Chanukah.
Chanukah is our archetypal civil war, "modernists" against traditionalists, an historical schizophrenia which we are playing out again, somewhat more politely, in our own time. But the wonderful thing is that when contemporary Jews make Chanukah, we are all - from assimilationists to Hasidim - on the side of the "traditionalists." Even the most "Hellenized," anti-religious Jews celebrate the victory of the Hasmoneans.
And that's because - here's my simple theory - all Jews deep down care about being Jews. Now and forever, in every Jewish vessel there's at least a little holy oil left. But if not enough oil remains to light the great menorah, then the connection to the faraway source of the light seems hopeless. And that hopelessness expresses itself in hostile ignorance or fear.
Alienated Jews like Peter and my aunt are not, I mean to say, indifferent Jews. Underneath their negativity bides, I think, a deep and hidden longing, and the outraged exclamation, "You're one of those people who tears the toilet paper?" is, often enough, not a dismissal but a plea. They want to know what it's about. Even if they don't believe in it any more, they still want to make the connection. Don't they still say L'chaim
when they drink? As Meyer Levin reminds us, a Jew never says L'chaim
over his glass without somehow meaning it.
And that in turn is because even the most alienated Jew, though he may think the promise is a lie, knows the bright light that Judaism promises: enriched understanding, true community, a purpose for his life; in brief, a deeper meaning for his daily activities - even for such trivialities as toilet paper and spoons.
Which means that my response to the taunt could be important. But I don't know what to say.
And if I don't know what to say, perhaps I must plead guilty to the criticism that is hidden in the taunt. My aunt is chronically exasperating, yes. But if I can't respond with depth and seriousness to the question behind her questions, then I may have become a mere toilet-paper tearer, satisfied with compulsive performance of ritual behaviors, when the real requirement is to pop up like spiritual Kleenex with what Auntie needs.
What does she need? What does Peter want? What answer does the young man in my stepdaughter's office deserve? Maybe it's the story of Chanukah - how by a miracle we fought off the beautiful falsehood of the Greeks for the sake of being Jews.
And that's why we tear the toilet paper in advance: to insist on being Jews. And also to remember the unending chain of light, which is in some form or other the secret knowledge shared by all of us.
Will you drink to the ancient knowledge of the light? Then happy Chanukah! L'chaim