Love the stranger, the “other”
Chanukah came early this year, and I hope you had a fun one. Now that it’s almost over, it can be a long dark vacation for those of us who do not observe anything on Dec. 25.
I say this because, although my family is clearly in the “Chanukah only” category, I know other families handle this differently. Some families are multifaith and observe several winter holidays. There are even (this was a surprise to me) Modern Orthodox Jewish families who have used Dec. 25 to create an entirely kosher Christmas dinner – because everyone had the same day off of work. Some Jewish people choose to observe aspects of Christian or pagan holidays, and, well, that’s up to them. It’s not the custom in my home, but we’re all lucky to be in a place where we are free to choose our own traditions.
A strange thing happened to me this fall. A friend of a friend put together a “women-owned businesses” shopping guide. It had a hashtag of #ShopWithHer. My work includes writing and editing, which can be hard to advertise. The other part is that I write downloadable knitting patterns. That means knitters, or those who love them, can go online and download a pattern I wrote for the price of a big cup of coffee. It’s not a huge earner, but I have a “woman-owned” business, so I asked to be included.
The emphasis of the guide’s creator was to highlight women and minorities. It was the week after the Pittsburgh massacre, so when I got to that question, I said something like, “I’m Jewish and an immigrant and now a dual-citizen. I moved from the U.S. to Canada.”
Why did I mention being Jewish? Jews are a minority in North America. While it has been popular in recent years to downplay any issues of our minority status, the truth is that there are still challenges to being Jewish here. For instance, violence like in Pittsburgh – and the assumption that, if we want to pray in peace, we should be hiring armed security.
If we just go back in history a little ways, we should think about quotas at universities, country clubs and other organizations that didn’t admit Jews at all. There were countless other places with no formal policy, but where folks made sure that we knew we didn’t belong.
For those who think that’s all in the past, I can say sarcastically, sure it is – my father’s university (Duke) had quotas when he attended it. The Women’s Junior League in Virginia did not accept “our kind” when I was a kid. The issue of “anti-Jewish” or antisemitic discrimination is not new, nor is it going away. The recent rise of hate crimes is well-documented in the news. Some American universities and colleges are canceling study-abroad programs to Israel, or their faculty members refuse to write letters of recommendation to Israeli study-abroad programs. I get e-newsletters from JTA and other Jewish organizations – and the news is clear.
When the #ShopWithHer guide came out, I was excited – and then shocked – to see my entry. Where other minorities were labeled “WOC” for “Woman of Colour” or “LGBT” or “Disabled,” mine read “Immigrant, Other.”
I’m proud of being Jewish and it’s not a part of my identity that I hide. I shouldn’t need to feel ashamed of it. I’m also well aware of our minority status, particularly when we’re surrounded by a holiday that celebrates the birth of another religion’s messiah. However, I didn’t include my business in this guide so I could be made “other” all over again. Why was I labeled “other”? Was it an attempt to protect me from hate? Or do I belong to a category that the guide’s creator didn’t feel was valid?
“Othering” isn’t my invention – if you’ve taken social science, religious or cultural studies, philosophy, history or other humanities classes at a university, you’ve likely heard of it. There are academic conferences and teacher in-services on the topic. A simple definition? It’s the action of deciding someone else is different or alien to you, “not one of us.” It’s a very primitive tribalism that helps people survive in adverse conditions. Some theorists think it references early human civilization, and others think it comes from times of war, famine and other natural disasters.
You can read about the “in group” of the Israelites and “others” in the Torah. There’s a lot of tribalism at work in some of our most common stories of identity. At the same time, we’re reminded, “You should love the stranger,” for “We were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
That’s right, Jewish tradition teaches us to love the “other.” In the face of increased hate crimes, discrimination and erasure, it can be hard work to keep reaching out and loving others. Perhaps it is ignorance that allows our identities to be ignored or disregarded; I’d like to think that, because the alternatives aren’t nearly as harmless.
It feels awful to have one’s own religious tradition erased. This time of year, it happens a lot. We’re faced with holiday greetings, music, customs, lights and foods that aren’t ours. When Chanukah is long over, it also feels ridiculous to wish someone or thank someone for a “Happy Chanukah,” even though it’s well-intentioned.
I’m still struggling with what to say to this shopping guide’s organizers. Saying nothing is an option, as is trying to engage in a dialogue. Maybe it’s enough to send along a copy of this column. There are so many ways to divide and diminish others, rather than celebrating and boosting our identities and differences. Chanukah is a holiday that, unmistakably and militantly, celebrates religious freedom. Perhaps it’s time for us to be our own modern version of Judah Maccabee, strong in the face of dangerous discrimination, but also trying to embrace the Jewish notion of loving the stranger rather than “othering” her.
Joanne Seiff writes regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. See more about her at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.