Archive | 2022/12/17

Princess Hanukkah

Princess Hanukkah


How I got the name, and why I’m struggling to find my magic this year.

I met Mitch at a party the weekend before Christmas. A friend introduced us, explaining that Mitch was an aspiring writer, too. Hanukkah overlapped with Christmas that year and when Mitch invited me to a movie on Christmas Day, I imagined us lighting candles together that evening–if things felt right.

He was late to the cinema; in those days before cellphones, I figured he’d either blown me off or been run over by a taxi. I was about to get a ticket to The English Patient for myself when he finally showed. The movie had started and he insisted that he couldn’t go in if he’d missed the first five minutes—what about getting something to eat instead?

I suggested hopping on the train to Chinatown but Mitch proclaimed that he hated Chinese food. I tried to stay open-minded as we walked through the quiet Chicago streets, finally stumbling on an open diner.

Mitch launched into a monologue about the new play he was writing, describing the winding plot in great detail and asking for my advice on the ending and whether I could introduce him to my theater friends. I finally got it: He didn’t want a date with me, he wanted a free playwriting workshop.

I finished my coffee, threw a few dollars on the table and said goodbye. He asked where I was going. To pick up Chinese food, I replied. I was happy to go light the Hanukkah candles on my own.

It was dark but for my landlord’s Christmas lights as I entered my apartment building, cartons of veggie lo mein and broccoli with garlic sauce in tow. I filled my hanukkiyah with the primary-colored candles that my mom had mailed me.

I said the blessings then turned on the radio for company. That’s when I heard her: Linda Lavin. I knew that voice, from Alice, a TV show I watched every week growing up. She was telling the tale of a Jewish girl named Shirley Abromowitz, who was starring in her school’s Christmas show. I was riveted. The Selected Shorts announcer explained the story was Grace Paley’s “The Loudest Voice.” In it, her parents were immigrants, trying to make sense of their precocious child as the Christmas pageant star:

My father couldn’t think of what to say to that. Then he decided: “You’re in America, Clara, you wanted to come here. In Palestine the Arabs would be eating you alive. Europe you had pogroms. Here you got Christmas . . . Some joke, Ha?”

“Very funny, Misha. What is becoming of you? If we came to a new country a long time ago to run away from tyrants, and instead we fall into a creeping pogrom, that our children learn a lot of lies, so what’s the joke? Ach, Misha, your idealism is going away.”

“So is your sense of humor.”

The radio, the candles, Linda Lavin, and Grace Paley had given me the Hanukkah gift that I didn’t know I was seeking.

The story reminded me of my grandmother Minerva, a first-generation child of Eastern European immigrants who, like Shirley, was chosen for the leads in her school plays and who often translated the new world for her Yiddish-speaking parents.

I was the fourth generation here in America. It hit me then, the power of simply turning on the radio to hear a story about a Jewish girl navigating Christmas written by a Jewish woman and starring a Jewish actress. All of the sacrifices made by those who came before so that I could be here, have that moment, my Jewish-Christmas Hanukkah in safety and peace.

I forgot about the botched date. My ancestors felt close to me as I placed the Hanukkah candles in the window. As they melted, their reflection seemed to dance in the winter wind.

From that year on, I leaned into my love for Hanukkah; I wore my Jewishness proudly through December. I was the friend who invited everyone over for latkes and vodka. I wrote Hanukkah plays for my students and helped a friend stage a version of Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins. When I met and married my Jewish-Buddhist husband, we started hosting the annual Hanukkah party for his extended family, making playlists with Erran Baron Cohen and the Maccabeats, filling bowls with fair trade gelt, creating latke recipes to satisfy even the gluten-free and vegan among us. Every year, I make time to listen to “The Loudest Voice.”

One night, when a friend coming for dinner stepped into my kitchen decorated with silver and blue sparkling stars and dreidels, Hanukkah potholders and tablecloths and salad tongs—this in the years before you could buy such kitsch at Target—she dubbed me Princess Hanukkah, and I’ve worn the name proudly ever since. Some may dismiss my extravagance, consider Hanukkah a minor holiday, imagine that all my luster is just a competition with Christmas. But that’s not what I feel; for me, Hanukkah is an ongoing portal toward meaning and joy.

Living as a religious minority in the U.S., I’ve always felt that we can’t compete with the Christmas culture around us—nor do I want to—but I can create a Hanukkah sanctuary in our home: a Holy Temple in time, light in the darkness of Kislev, Eric Kimmel books and Adam Sandler playlists, the smell of oil that stays in the house when we fry our own latkes and sufganiyot. Plus eight nights of presents for the kids. The connection of it all tethering them to their ancestors.

My favorite part of the eight days is sitting with the candles, catching the light and shadows they cast in the windows.

By this point in December, in 2022, I would have normally taken out my hanukkiyot collection to scrape off any bits of wax remaining from last year. I would have put up the decorations that I hang outside of my house: the Hanukkah flag and matching banner.

Instead, I’m ruminating about which community candle lightings feel safe to go to, wondering what security measures are in place.

I was riding the train with my 17-year-old son last week and saw his gold Star of David necklace hanging out of his shirt and my impulse was to tell him to tuck in the necklace. I stopped myself from saying anything and let him wear it out, but I hated that it’s a question, and how I don’t know whether in a month or in a year things may be worse and I’ll have to tell him to hide his star.

I’m thinking back to the conversation of Clara and Misha, Shirley Abromowitz’s parents, their 1930s, new-to-America conversation about whether living in a Christian country is no big deal or whether in fact, there might be a slow-building pogrom here that we just don’t see.

My grandmother Minerva is no longer here on earth, but sometimes she speaks to me when my fear becomes a knot inside me. Princess Hanukkah, she says, this moment in time is what all of the Hanukkahs in your life were preparing you for.

I know that she is right and when the first night of Hanukkah comes, we will fill our home with light and shine it out the window.

Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer is a writer and educator based in Philadelphia. She teaches online workshops at the intersection of writing and spiritual growth. She is drafting a memoir about ongoing conversations with her ancestors.

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University of Toronto medical school’s antisemitism epidemic exposed

University of Toronto medical school’s antisemitism epidemic exposed


A study detailing a Jewish professor’s personal experiences with antisemitism was published soon after the dean apologized for 20th-century quotas on Jewish med school applicants.

University of Toronto / (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Jewish-Canadian professor Dr. Ayelet Kuper detailed her personal encounters with antisemitism and discrimination throughout her tenure at the University of Toronto (U of T)  in a peer-reviewed study published earlier this week by the Canadian Medical Education Journal.

“While I describe in this paper my personal experience of discrimination, my purpose is not to name or shame the behavior of the individuals (whom I will not name) who perpetrated that discrimination,” the former senior adviser on antisemitism and current associate professor at the university’s Temerty Faculty of Medicine (TFOM), writes in the study. “My goal is to call attention to a growing social justice issue that is larger than any individuals.” 

“It is, put plainly, the equivalent of a group of white people telling Black people how to define anti-Black racism–and it is just as unacceptable”

Dr. Ayelet Kuper

Kuper cites what was perhaps the most well-publicized antisemitic event at TFOM this year, when the honorable Irwin Cotler, a former Canadian federal justice minister, attorney-general and current Canadian Special Envoy on Preserving Holocaust Remembrance and Combatting Antisemitism, gave a speech at TFOM on International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Months after Cotler’s speech, a previously confidential letter signed by 45 U of T faculty members falsely accusing Cotler of attempting to oppress Palestinians and of using a definition of antisemitism forbidden by U of T was leaked. School leadership never publicly responded to the letter, so TFOM’s Jewish community partnered with a local Jewish physician group to draft an open letter explaining why the leaked complaint was antisemitic; they convinced over 300 TFOM faculty members to sign this letter.

UNIVERSITY FACULTY accused international human rights activist Prof. Irwin Cotler of prejudice against Palestinians (credit: REUTERS)

“It is, put plainly, the equivalent of a group of white people telling Black people how to define anti-Black racism–and it is just as unacceptable,” Kuper says in regard to the leaked complaint’s condemnation of Cotler’s definition of antisemitism.

Antisemitism on the rise in Canadian universities

While most blame the TFOM’s antisemitic environment on the recent conflicts in Gaza, “hateful attitudes about Jews have been on the rise at TFOM for at least three years.”

In the years prior to the war in Gaza, Kuper reports overhearing colleagues belittling the Holocaust, hearing about non-Jewish students believing their Jewish classmates had the power to block their residency matches, and having to address the refusal of student groups to provide kosher food at TFOM events. She also details personally experiencing antisemitism on campus in the form of accusations that she lies to, oppresses, and controls others for her own personal gain. Kuper has even been told, “that antisemitism can’t exist because everything Jews say are lies, including any claims to have experienced discrimination.”

“Dr. Kuper’s experiences with antisemitism are not unique, but they are deeply disturbing.”

Noah Shack, Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs Vice President of the Greater Toronto Area

“Growing support for antisemitism at TFOM has been carefully re-framed since the spring of 2021 as political activism against Israel and as scholarly positions held under the protection of academic freedom,” explains Kuper.

“Calling someone a Zionist in the Canadian context is almost the same as calling them a Jew,” Kuper says, citing recent data that 79% of Canadian Jews define themselves as being emotionally attached to Israel. “Nonetheless, there are those at TFOM who have insisted (to me and to others) that [Zionist] means various racist and hateful things, ranging from ‘hating  all  Muslims’ to ‘wanting to murder all Palestinians.’ Such false definitions are then used to justify hatred of any Jews who ‘admit’ to being Zionists.”

The rise in antisemitism at U of T reflects an increase in Canada as a whole: A record 2799 verified anti-Jewish hate crimes were committed in Canada in 2021. Following the mainstreaming of antisemitism by celebrities Kanye West and Kyrie Irving, the number should only continue to rise.

“Dr. Kuper’s experiences with antisemitism are not unique, but they are deeply disturbing,” said Noah Shack, vice president of the greater Toronto area at the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, in response to Kuper’s newly published study.

“The pernicious tropes, discrimination, victim-blaming, and hateful attitudes about Jews that Dr. Kuper details confirm the serious concerns that prompted the TFOM to establish the role of Senior Advisor on Antisemitism in 2021. We look forward to learning what action the faculty will be taking to address this distressing situation. In September, the dean of the TFOM formally apologized for its quotas on Jewish medical school applicants in the 1940-50s. While recognition of past failures is important, urgent action to support Jewish faculty, staff, and students is essential today.”

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