“You know, he was Jewish.”
This was a family-famous refrain spoken by my grandmother, my Jewish grandmother, over the many years I was fortunate enough to have a grandmother in my life. Now, my Jewish grandmother, Jeanette, practiced Conservative Judaism, after having been raised in a strict Orthodox home by her immigrant parents. To give you an idea of how not Orthodox Grandma Jeanette was: First and foremost, unlike any other Jewish grandmother I’ve ever known, she did not cook (she liked to eat out), but she did have three go-to meals she made for holidays: beef brisket, bean-and-barley soup, both prepared according to Jewish dietary kasher laws, and…shrimp scampi, which is as tref (unfit) as pork is. She loved bacon too, and she broke tradition when it came to foods she really liked.
Still, she was proud of her heritage and knew every Jewish person ever in the world, it seems. She had a book called “I Bet You Didn’t Know So-and-So Was Jewish” or something like that. So around the dinner table, eating shrimp scampi, she’d say things like, “You know, Alexander Graham Bell gets all the credit for inventing the telephone, but it was really his Jewish assistant.” I don’t know whether that’s true or not.
The reason I’m writing about my Grandma Jeanette and her proclivity for Jewish-people trivia now is because ‘tis the time of year when Adam Sandler’s “The Chanukah Song” gets played ad nauseum. Bet you didn’t know there was more than one version, each one adding to his list of surprise! Jewish people. I imagine Adam grew up in a home like ours.
There’s something about self-identification with a group that brings us comfort, or contributes to our sense of mass worth or power. And especially now, during the holidays, when Hanukkah menorahs, Christmas trees, and Kwanzaa kinaras are aglow, there’s a way bigger part of me that celebrates diversity, and another itty-bitty-but-nonetheless-there part that can’t help but feel sad that these wonderful aspects of our history and heritage are what continue to keep us divided, and too often hateful.
So anyway, my husband, who is not Jewish, and I received an invitation the other day to a “Latkes Party” from a woman my husband knows. For those of you who don’t know, latkes are fried potato pancakes, which is a traditional Hanukkah food. “So she’s Jewish,” I said, channeling Grandma Jeanette’s “one of us” chirpiness. “No,” my husband replied. “So her husband’s Jewish,” I edited. “No,” my husband replied again, then added, “Maybe she’s interested in knowing more about this holiday, about people and traditions she doesn’t know well.”
Wow, I thought. What’s more…Yay! I remember reading what a little girl said in the wake of 9/11 – something like, “They wouldn’t hate us if they knew our names.” So this holiday season, get to know others’ “names” – even in small ways, like making latkes, attending a Christmas Eve midnight mass, and/or sharing a Kwanzaa tradition of sharing a libation from a single chalice. Not only will you be showing respect, you’ll be modeling peace.