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DEC 3, 2013

People of the Story...or the Study?

By: Samara Hutman, Executive Director, Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust

Tonight is mid-stream Chanukah and Thanksgiving is behind us. In the end, I'm not sure the confluence of the two birthed any physical or spiritual properties for my family or me.

What tugs at me tonight, as the sixth candle has done its job on window sills and in kitchens and dining rooms around the world, is the grand canyon between the mid-stream Chanukah story and the mid-stream communal conversation sparked by the Pew Study.

Surely computer screens are still burning bright tonight and a simple search will turn up countless interpretations of this effort to quantify and predict the possibly ineffable trending of American Jewish Identity.

The Chanukah story has always held great power for me, especially the interpretation that highlights the borderline foolish optimism that allowed the Hasmoneans to go for broke and use the week's oil ration on the first night, trusting and believing that scarcity would somehow be trumped by plenty.

And they were rewarded. Not only did they get eight nights, they also got to encounter the sublime. The presence of G-d, the almighty, a miracle of beneficence and bounty, a rebuttal to the scarcity model, and a confirmation that their optimism was not, in the end, foolish at all, but saturated to the core with a belief in what is possible when you allow your heart to trump and transcend data. This much oil. Only lasts so long. Will Only Burn Until.... But no, actually.

Sometimes the greatest moments in life outrun stats and astound us, actually move us to our core. And these are the stories that recruit us to enlist in this great story and find our part to play. What are we called to? What are we called for? What part will we play in the story of this complex and beautiful and troubled world? Who are we as human beings and as Jews, as women and as men.

I am a product of intermarriage and it pained me to sit in my synagogue and listen to a sociologist unravel the data only to feel that somehow I was understood to be part of the problem and not part of the solution. Whenever the intermarriage conversation comes up, I find myself wondering if "they" know any of "us" are in the room.

So, as we move toward night 7, I want to join those oil-spendthrift optimists and imagine a future that is not supported by current data but by the ancient story of the Jewish People, a people of stories extraordinary in their teachings, their offerings and their luminous windows on human possibility and endeavor. A future where the children of intermarriage have a role to play as they offer themselves up to be a part of the story.

This Chanukah, I hope the metaphoric essence of this magical oil might drip a drop or two onto the crisp white pages of this new study and sully it just enough to add a bit of glistening Midrash in the margins and with it a luminous teaching.

And in those oily smudges, the encrypted message might be:

Look far, far back,as far back as we can see, and reckon with the fact that the Jewish people have oft, actually always, been up against it, facing persecution and struggle that has taken many forms. Sometimes from the outside in and sometimes from the inside out. Oppressions of such magnitude that on reviewing the "data" it seems impossible that the Jewish people continued but at each juncture, from hardship to degradation to near successful attempts at all out erasure, we have astonishingly, not only survived but emerged with our humanity and our soulful tenderness intact.

Look at the way the droplets of oil make golden parchment of plain white paper, shiny illuminated windows through which we can see the light of Chanukah miracles advertised.

Look at the way the Chanukah oil could soften the hard data as it does an onion skin. First, hard, crisp and opaque. But touched by the oil, it can be softened, sweetened and made translucent and porous. A document with windows that expose the light and encourage us to tell our real story to the world. Not one of "the end" predicted by statistical analysis but one of endless beginnings after events that would, and should, by sheer data, have been the end, over and over, since the beginning of time.


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