Thursday, December 17, 2009
Tidings of Struggle and Joy
So I recently had to explain to a room full of people what the miracle of Hannukah entails. In Spanish. Yeah. Are we having fun yet?
Look, it's not like I didn't expect for this country to be a little, shall we say, Jew-deficient. I'm neither crazy nor particularly stupid, and I've read, you know, at least one book about European history, like, ever. But to be fair to myself, it's not like I've ever really spent a long time in a place that had no knowledge of Jewish culture, practices or general sense of humor. I mean, after 5 years in an Episcopalian elementary school, which was, to say the least, slightly confusing, I ended up spending 10 years in Quaker School, so, well, in Struggledelphia that pretty much means bring on the bagels and shmear because you couldn't swing a dead cat around your head without hitting a fellow tribesman in that place. And while I myself considered not-Yale pretty damn Christian, 30% of the population does indeed, in theory, shun the pork products, so, really, not too shabby. So I suppose you might say that I've pretty much spent the majority of my life among the chosen people, and, hey, it's not like there is anything wrong with that. We generally tend to be funny, self-deprecating, and we nosh like no one else. All in all, I'd say it's been a pretty good deal, thus far.
However, the one thing a life lived in Hebrew hasn't really given me is the concept that there are large groups of people out there for whom the term "latke" means nothing at all. So when Hannukah came around here in Madrid I was, shall we say, at a bit of a loss. One problem is that the Jewish community here is, well, chicitita, as the Spanish would say. We as a people tend not to return to those places from which we've been asked to leave. Of course, the consequences of this mean that we are currently looking for a new planet. Still, I figured, if Mount Sinai wont come to Noah, Noah could go to Mount Sinai. So I decided to throw my own Hannukah party, in defiance of several hundred years of Papal decrees. And while I actually was able to convince a large group of people to come and celebrate the festival of lights with me, I ran into some trouble explaining to them exactly what it was.
To be fair, it's not as if Hannukah is really our most important holiday. While fun and chock full of fried foods (how can you go wrong), it's not nearly as significant as Purim or Yom Kippur, and it doesn't hold a candle (see what I did there?) to Passover. The only reason it's gained such popularity in recent years is because it falls so near to Christmas that we can pretend we've got something to equal the birth of the Christan Messiah. But what further hindered my celebration was the fact that here in Spain there is no cultural context for Judaism. It's not as though people have any kind of association with the term "Jewish". They don't consider us greedy money lenders screaming for our pounds of flesh, nor do they see us as lawyers and doctors who love a nice brisket, nor do they understand us as hilarious if neurotic comedians who marry their own step daughters. They've got nothing when it comes to us.
So when you are trying to explain the Maccabes and oil lamps and dreidel and gelt it's like you are speaking another language. And if you are in fact accustomed to speaking another language altogether, well, that, my friends, is what we call a struggle. Put it on the list you are keeping at home.
In the end I just sort of had to throw in the towel and tell everyone this was our version of Christmas. It's not entirely untrue, to be fair, and honestly, after some wine, it's not like anyone was listening to me anyway. I suppose some things are just untranslatable at a certain point. Upside? They really seemed to understand the concept of latkes. You have to take the victories that you can.