I know who I am … or do I?
Moving into a condominium forced the writer to modify how she approached the holiday season, including the purchase of an electric chanukiyah. (photo by Libby Simon)
For Jews, the celebrations of Chanukah arrive on Sunday evening, Dec.2, and close on Monday evening, Dec.10. It is also a time when many people struggle with dissonance between religion and Western values. I know who I am, so it was not a problem – except, an epiphany struck.
I had a dream some time ago. I dreamed I was in the lobby of a hotel filled with a patchwork of people of different colours and garbs reflecting differences in religious, cultural and ethnic backgrounds. My eyes scanned the room searching for someone, or something, the object of my search unclear. No one took notice as I wound my way through the crowd and exited the area into a corridor. Turning to the right, I entered a room through an open door. My eyes were drawn to a box gift-wrapped with blue-and-white Chanukah paper sitting on a table. As I picked it up, a feeling of warmth wrapped around me. Suddenly, a non-descript, dark, threatening shadow loomed overhead, momentarily startling me. With outstretched arms, I handed my gift over to this strange apparition as if to appease it, and was immediately filled with a deep sense of inner peace and contentment.
This dream was so close to the surface, its meaning became readily clear. I was fully aware of a recent inner struggle triggered by the Christmas/Chanukah season in which I felt the very soul of my Jewishness being challenged from an external source. It was a strange and surprising experience because, as an adult, I have never been particularly observant. Although raised in an Orthodox Jewish family, my personal beliefs led me to a secular lifestyle. Following dietary laws, for example, was irrelevant in determining the quality of good character. Traditions were important more for benefit of family than in any religious sense. Rituals, such as lighting the chanukiyah candles on Chanukah did not seem necessary. After all, I know who I am. I define myself first as a human being, who happens to be of Jewish descent. But, after a lifetime of working and living in a dominant, multi-religious society, why now had it become an issue? As an empty nester, for whom do I practise it?
The answer was surprising but simple: the condominium lifestyle. Who would have anticipated that this popular and accepted way of life would create such a fall-out? I had long questioned this concept in which total strangers of diverse backgrounds would make a large monetary investment and enter into a common living arrangement – an arrangement in which they become inextricably bound to one another in some very basic ways. They accept the premise and agree to give up certain freedoms in exchange for reducing personal responsibilities. In doing so, they turn their decision-making powers and independence over to others who may have different opinions, qualifications, priorities, intelligences and abilities. Nonetheless, this is what I bought into without realizing that, as important as these issues are, others would run even deeper – such as ethnicity, culture and religion.
I have grown up with the symbols and celebrations of Christmas. As a child, I participated in school plays and choirs and Santa never asked your religion when he warmly handed you a candy cane. Feelings of deprivation or envy never entered my psyche because the love of family filled my needs. As an adult, I have continued to take in the festivities, in sharing the spirit of peace and goodwill with non-Jewish friends, neighbours and colleagues.
But something changed. Tolerance, appreciation and participation were all possible when “The Season” did not infringe on my personal turf. In the spirit of goodwill, it is important to accommodate and respect these symbolic religious expressions. However, some individuals threatened to extend these decorations over my personal unit and warned that any resistance on my part could be crushed by a simple vote of the majority. Canada is a multicultural country supporting the values and rights of freedom of religion, thus protecting minorities. Such intimidation threatens to swallow who I am.
As neighbours on a street, such a thought would never even materialize. Yet, in a condominium arrangement, boundaries become blurred. Such actions deny my very existence. They render me invisible and impose a choice – assimilation or alienation. Neither is acceptable and therein lies the conflict.
However, the dream did offer a resolution. It led me on a personal journey through the chaos of diversity. I turned towards what was right for me – the box, wrapped in blue-and-white Chanukah paper, that confirmed who I am. By walking through the open door in my dream, I received the reward of self-discovery. I realized that knowing who I am was not enough. It was only in giving my gift to the “faceless figure” of others did I feel a sense of inner peace and contentment. The dream revealed not only who I am, but who I am in relation to others. Until now, my identity had been like a one-way mirror. I could see through the glass while the other side only reflected the viewer’s own image. If others do not see me, I will disappear like a ghost in the morning light. Still, I cannot ask anyone to extinguish their light, for that is who they are, only not to impose it on mine.
What was the solution? Instead of the customary, small, coloured licorice-like wax Chanukah candles whose symbolic message of freedom dies quickly in a muted puff of smoke, I purchased and placed an electric chanukiyah in my window. Through the sustained bright light, the “mirror” becomes translucent, revealing the beautiful cultural mosaic that is Canada’s proud tradition, one that allows each of us to be who we are.
And, perhaps along with the glittering Christmas lights, we will all be enriched, as, together, they cast a far greater illumination in recognizing, respecting, accepting and even appreciating our differences: Just like the mirror on the wall / Silvered coats reflect us all / Strip bare the veneer of hypocrisy / A window reveals you are just like me.
Libby Simon, MSW, worked in child welfare services prior to joining the Child Guidance Clinic in Winnipeg as a school social worker and parent educator for 20 years. Also a freelance writer, her writing has appeared in Canada, the United States, and internationally, in such outlets as Canadian Living, CBC, Winnipeg Free Press, PsychCentral and Cardus, a Canadian research and educational public policy think tank.