For the first time in my life, there are no dreidels or chanukiahs hanging on the walls of my classrooms, and in the campus dining halls, there is not a chance of being served latkes or sufganiyot. That’s not how it works in college. Instead, I find myself gazing at big, neatly tied, lava colored bows on lampposts; surrounded by carefully placed garlands and strings of tiny little light bulbs, both colorful and plain white; and bombarded with “merry Christmas’” for the first time in my eighteen years on this planet.
As the only Jew living on my floor in the dorm, I’ve been trying to adequately and respectfully decorate for Chanukah while admiring the decorations of my floormates. Thankfully, I have a wonderful and accepting roommate who truly embraced the idea of decorating our room for both Christmas and Chanukah. We even split our door down the middle so each of us had a side to decorate. So now, our room is outfitted with little stockings for each of us, a small Christmas tree that we decorated together, 2 different electric chanukiahs, dreidels and gelt, as well as very neutral wintery decorations like snowflakes and snowmen.
While the rest of my floor is gearing up for 25 days of Christmas sweaters, music, movies, and more, I’ve noticed something funny and innately Jewish about my community. One of the most unique aspects of Judaism, and the hardest one for some of my friends to grasp, is that our religion encourages asking questions. This is what I love about my Jewish community and my community on this floor: no one is afraid to ask questions.
It is common knowledge to my floormates that I am Jewish (it isn’t hard to hide when I constantly exclaim in Hebrew or walk through the dorm with a tikkun in my hand and often wear a Star of David around my neck). I’m so relieved and excited that my new friends have been supportive of me. They know now that when I come out of my room wearing a skirt, they tell me to have fun at services or if I use a Yiddish or Hebrew phrase, they always want an explanation. My favorite part though, is how unafraid they are to ask questions and how actively they pursue answers.
All year, they’ve asked me questions about different customs like apples and honey and asking for forgiveness before Yom Kippur, and now that Chanukah is coming up, they’ve been asking about playing dreidel and how lighting a chanukiah works, what those chocolate coins are called, why we receive presents, and all in all, what Chanukah actually means.
While I find myself celebrating the Festival of Lights in a rather secular environment this year (if one can really call it celebrating when I have finals all that week), I’m glad to be around people who want to help me celebrate and experience my holiday with me.