Thursday, December 6, 2012

Carla Naumburg and Cultural Memory

The Huffington Post's "Religion" section is generally pretty fluffy, and they follow the same general pattern: There are articles about some crazy shit that a group of religious people have done (example), articles about a religion or a side of religion that most Americans aren't going to know about (example), articles linking religion to some issue of the day (example), and finally people's personal stories about their religion (example). In all four of these kinds of articles you will find atheists making fun of whatever religion is on the docket and generally saying the world would be better off without it. So at least in that respect, the Huffington Post is remarkably consistent. Now as an atheist that doesn't bother me so much, except that it gets boring.

So departing from the usual topic of this blog, I wanted to discuss an article by Carla Naumburg about the Hanukkah story. She says that she isn't going to teach it to her children (2 and 4) this year, and in general here is her reason:
"Like so many other Jewish stories that have withstood the test of time, this one is about anti-Semitism, oppression and murder. It's about people being forced to make horrible choices in the face of insurmountable odds. My girls are young (just 2 and 4), and they're lucky to have lived a fairly peaceful life so far. I'm not sure they even know what it means to kill or be killed, and they certainly have no clue that they are part of a community that has been on the receiving end of hatred and violence for centuries. They'll learn about it all soon enough (hopefully from a history book rather than direct experience), and once they do, their perspective on the world will be changed forever. I'd like to delay that reality for as long as possible."
I think that Carla and I may be interpreting the Hanukkah story differently. In my understanding, the Maccabees did not fight the Greeks in self-defense. They fought the Greeks because the Greeks would not let them practice Judaism and wanted them to be idolaters instead. So it was a religious war, though as time passed it became billed as a fight for religious freedom.

This is in contrast to stories like Passover, where Jews were mistreated because they were Jews and took steps to end that mistreatment, the Maccabees chose to pick up arms and fight. If anything, it is more like the American Revolution, which I am curious to know if Carla chooses to teach her children about.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that Carla must teach her children the Hanukkah story. They are her kids, she can teach them anything that she wants. Two and four are pretty young to be learning stories about fighting anyway, even secular ones. If she doesn't feel that they are old enough to handle stories about wars, then fine, but that isn't the reason she gives in the article  As I said before I think Carla seems to be misunderstanding the purpose of the Hanukkah story. It's not a sad one about how Jews were oppressed, it's a happy one about how the Jews overcame very long odds.

This of course leaves aside the question of whether the Hanukkah story happened at all and if it did if the Maccabees were everything they were cracked up to be, which I don't think is true either.

But let's put that aside and get to the cultural memory question. All peoples have cultural memory, and the Jews have it more than most. Our collective experiences make people who they are. For Americans it can be bad things like 9/11 and JFK's assassination, or good things like Obama's election. But it's something that all Americans have in common, and we pass the stories down whether we like it or not. This includes Jews as well, the stories make them (and us) what they are and if it is important to Carla that her children consider themselves part of the Jewish people.

To simplify this, here's a cartoon (h/t YidWithLid):

A story is a story, and you can look at whatever aspect of it you want. Carla appears to be focusing more on the negative side: the fighting and death. But there's also a positive side: the redemption and the overcoming of obstacles. And if you choose to believe in such things, the miracle as well.

Let me conclude by demonstrating just how much the Huffington Post loves this kind of thing with a classic comment by a known anti-Zionist:

Now either "MarcEdward" is trolling or he really doesn't get it. It's like saying that because black Americans are living pretty good lives on the whole that they should just forget about everything that has happened to them in the past. All the hatred and oppression their parents and grandparents experienced is all just "fluff" that only serves a function to "fill ones kids heads with."

American Jews have succeed in unprecedented ways, but they are still Jews and they still have that Jewish cultural memory. To give it up would mean losing a lot of Jewish identity, which is something American Jews have been struggling with for a long time. Being Jewish is more than just lighting candles every year (or week), and even if the ugly stuff bothers Carla and "Marc," it's still just as much a part of being Jewish as any holiday. Can't say I'm surprised to see the Huffington Post trying to smooth over that part of Jewish history. Is it part of the war on anti-Semitism? That may be a larger question for a different time.

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