Shining A Light On Difference


I just got back from grocery shopping at my local food co-op. I don’t usually shop there; I am not a co-op member or fully committed to either the organic produce or the unpasteurized milk sold there. However, post-election, I feel a need to seek out and support alternative spaces, to do everything I can to resist the drive for homogenization in American culture and the attempt to both flatten our differences and empower those who hate all who vary from themselves in some way, even slightly.

At the co-op, many workers are people transitioning to genders differing from those they were assigned at birth; here, they present themselves to the world in ways they wish; beards, nail polish and dangly earrings coexisting on one body.

I want our country to continue to be a place where people can publicly present as they wish, in whatever form, by religion as well as other markers. I don’t want to see our country consumed by hate and people making themselves smaller and less different in order to fit in. That is what scares me most in our current moment, a public willingness to give up power and give up difference. Number 7 on Yale history Professor Timothy Snyder’s list of how to survive in Trump’s America based on his expertise in modern European history is, “Stand out.” I’ll let Snyder elaborate: “Someone has to. It is easy, in words and deeds, to follow along. It can feel strange to do or say something different. But without that unease, there is no freedom. And the moment you set an example, the spell of the status quo is broken, and others will follow.”

The evaporation of difference is terrifying to me since I’ve grown up aware that upholding differences from the surrounding culture can be quite precarious. My grandmother Gus’ youngest brother, Albert, joined the American army when he was of age. While enlisted and serving in Colorado, he met and married a non-Jewish woman. Albert remained out West his whole life, far from his Philadelphia family. My great-grandfather sat shiva when his son married, but the family remained in contact and my great-grandfather, and later my grandmother after his passing, sent their son and brother matzah every year on Passover. It was a source of great pain to my grandmother — who loved to host her family for gatherings on Jewish holidays and whose table I inherited — that her youngest brother, the boy in the adorable sailor suit in the photo of her family, estranged himself from his family and his Judaism by choice and desire.

Though his sons and their grandchildren inherited his Jewish name, they are wholly distant from knowing anything of what it means to be Jewish. It was, and is, easy for my great uncle and now his family to give up being at all different and assimilate, in America as in the rest of the world. Those of us who remain [practicing] Jews have always resisted that impulse.

My mother-in-law tells a story about my father-in-law. He has been deceased for over 40 years and not able to tell his own stories, so the ones I hear feel especially precious. He was at Yale Medical School, where there were very, very few Jews in the late 1950s. A blond classmate of his was named Eddie Gilbert; other classmates did not know his family’s original name was Goldberg. Larry Perlman, my father-in-law, by contrast, never disguised his name or his Brooklyn public school background, both clear markers of his religious identity. Gilbert complained to my father-in-law about which of their classmates and professors were crass anti-Semites under their charming and well-bred veneers, constantly updating him about what things this student or that professor had to say about members of the tribe. My father-in-law sagely told him, “I have an easy solution, Gilbert. Change your name back to Goldberg. You’ll never hear any of this again.” Not to your face, anyway, he meant.

This Chanukah, I hope we can all think about the meaning of the candles, the desire of Jews to retain uniqueness in the face of Hellenization. Chanukah is about Jews continuing to spread light in the world, holding on to our legislated optimism, taught by the practice of how we kindle our menorah: that we increase light over time by moving from one candle to eight, rather than down from eight to one.

Not all Jews want to blend in, nor should we. This Chanukah is a time when, if you’ve been Gilbert, maybe it’s time to think about going back to Goldberg. The more we as Jews stand out, in whatever way, the lower the chance that we will empower hate against ourselves, or anyone else.

Beth Kissileff is the editor of the anthology “Reading Genesis” (Continuum) and author of the novel “Questioning Return” (Mandel Vilar Press).