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At 33, I’m finally celebrating my first Hanukkah

My lifelong apathy about my Jewish heritage ended when I took a DNA test, dove in deeper and learned the value of embracing tradition
The author's hanukkiyah, dreidel and two co-workers wearing Hanukkah sweaters. (Joe Baur)
The author's hanukkiyah, dreidel and two co-workers wearing Hanukkah sweaters. (Joe Baur)

BERLIN (JTA) — I wasn’t raised Jewish, but this year I’m proud to be connecting with a neglected part of my heritage.

There are a lot of Jews who would say that I am not Jewish — my Jewish heritage stems from my paternal grandmother, and I wasn’t raised in the culture or religion beyond enjoying some foods my grandmother made. I accepted for most of my life that, at best, I was Jew-ish, with an emphasis on the “ish.”

This year’s Rosh Hashanah was the first explicitly Jewish holiday I had ever celebrated. I skipped Yom Kippur, not feeling prepared for the fast. But I’m ready for Hanukkah — and I want to do it right. As self-conscious as I can be about my level of Jewishness, celebrating Hanukkah this 5780 feels right and like the natural progression of my fledgling connection with a Jewish identity.

I spent a good 30 years of my life apathetic about my Jewish heritage. A complicated relationship with my grandmother and that one time my classmates served me a slice of cake with a swastika carved in it didn’t exactly motivate me to lean in earlier.

Then one day, I saw the results of a DNA test. I always knew my Jewish heritage existed in some form, but I’m a visual learner. Seeing it displayed on a pie chart of identities resonated with me, even if some friends thought it strange that I agreed to let a private company store private information about myself that shows my Jewishness.

I felt moved to dive deeper, and have spent the past two years doing so. The intellectual stimulation of studying Jewish ethics with books like Sarah Hurwitz’s “Here All Along,” the meditative process of braiding challah in the kitchen or the challenge of reading the weekly parsha have all been immensely rewarding and satisfying. Jewishness has become something that’s deeply embedded within me and something that I simply enjoy.

I don’t want this first Hanukkah to be just some token celebration of the holiday. I want to understand it and why I’m lighting candles. I want to earn my ugly Hanukkah sweater. So I’m reading the books of the Maccabees, I’m studying the history of the revolt, I’m talking with local Jews about what Hanukkah means to them and I’m trying to wrap my amateur tongue around the blessings.

This deep dive into the holiday has led me to so much more than just celebrating Hanukkah. I’ve learned the value of sincerely studying and embracing one tradition, as opposed to treating various cultures and beliefs like an Amazon shopping cart, selecting only the aesthetically appealing bits that are actively in front of me.

I’ve recently moved to Berlin, where you have the fastest growing Jewish population within Europe. Israeli and Ashkenazi eateries are aplenty, with a smattering of New York-style bagel shops — like Fine Bagels, where you can find a slew of Jewish cookbooks sitting underneath a Yiddish expression presented in block letters: “Lign in drerd un bakn beygl” — “May you lie in the ground and bake bagels.” There are worse places to be Jewish.

My mother passed away recently following a difficult nearly three-year battle with breast cancer that was painful to watch, especially for her caregiver and loving husband of nearly 50 years, my father. Like most deaths by cancer, it felt unfair. This was a woman who built an admirable and successful career — earning her the nickname Wonder Woman at the office — raised two boys and never complained. For her to be afflicted with such a disease felt cruel.

Needless to say, I could use a little light this year. Plus, the sun is gone by 4 in the afternoon these days in Berlin. A lit hanukkiyah is practically a necessity.

So I’m leaning into Hanukkah. Christmas will be there when I visit my family back in the States. It’ll get its day. In the meantime, I’ll be eating the Reibekuchen at the ubiquitous German Christmas markets and pretend it’s a latke because, well, it is. They’re indistinguishable. It would cost them nothing to just call it a latke when they hand it to me. I’m just saying.

Kvetching aside, my attention leading up to these overlapping holiday seasons is on Hanukkah. Christmas won’t miss me or even notice that my focus is elsewhere.

This year, I’ve gone to Berlin’s Hanukkah-Basar to pick out my first menorah and get some dreidels for the office Christmas party. I’ve rallied other Jews in the office to don ugly Hanukkah sweaters (“This Is How I Roll” next to dreidels for me) and play Alma’s dreidel drinking game. On Sunday, I’m showing up for the menorah lighting at Brandenburg Gate after making latkes using my mother’s applesauce recipe.

And at my new apartment here, I’ll follow the commandment to place my menorah on the window sill for all to see. My very patient Greek Orthodox wife will join me as I light the new hanukkiyah, shedding a sweet light to remind me of days long ago.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JTA or its parent company, 70 Faces Media.

About the Author
Joe Baur is an American writer and author based in Berlin.
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