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Assimilation, Chanukah, and Joseph

12/03/2021 02:01:30 PM


Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach! Chanukah is at its core a holiday about embracing freedom of religion, a pride in being Jewish, and a refusal to change just for the sake of fitting in with those in power. As modern, progressive Jews, we have changed ourselves a bit to keep up with the times, but we maintain our Jewishness and can still appreciate our ancestors who fought for our right to do so. The emphasis of the miracle of the oil took on a new importance for our rabbis who lived in ancient Babylonia, at a time when maybe talking about fighting foreign governments didn’t seem like a good idea, ironically further emphasizing from an historical point of view the importance of true freedom of religion.

In this week's Torah portion, Parashat Miketz, Joseph makes his way out of his jail cell and into the inner circle of Egyptian leadership. The pharaoh himself arranges for Joseph to marry an Egyptian woman of high status, and she bears him two children. The first is Menashe, meaning "God has made me forget my hardship and my parental home," and the second is Ephraim, "God has made me fertile in the land of my affliction." Joseph is ready to fit in with the Egyptians, but there's a level of obvious discomfort in it. He has come from a home where his own family members wanted to kill him, and fled to a place that has (aside from his stint in prison) mostly been good for and to him. He is able to rise to a position of power, but is unable to feel totally Egyptian.

Rashi offers a Midrash on the story of the famine in Egypt, that the soil didn't stop producing food, but that the food grew and then immediately rotted. There's this sense of intense and immediate terror in this Midrash, that all of what we have may fall apart in front of our eyes at any moment. Joseph, the one in charge of managing the famine, is not only concerned about the physical rotting of the produce, but that all of what he has built for himself may rot. His children, half-Israelite and half-Egyptian, are central to his feeling rooted in the strange land of Egypt, and their names reflect his fear of this new place as well as his desire to assimilate into it, his remembering of home and his desire to forget it, his concern for life, staying alive, giving life, keeping alive. Similarly, we are all assimilated Jews in some ways, trying to live safely in the broader communities we are a part of, but still feel in some way a pull to our Jewishness. 

Our Ner Shalom Book Club just finished reading The Last Kings of Shanghai by Jonathan Kaufman and we are now reading The Last Rose of Shanghai by Weina Dai Randel, both books about Jews in Shanghai, China. Issues of assimilation have been one of the core topics of the conversations around the books. Shanghai was home to many international powers, including two families of Baghdadi Jews with business empires that stretched across the East, with footholds in Baghdad, Mumbai, Hong Kong, and Shanghai. Particularly after Iraq expelled its Jews and froze their accounts, these familes assimilated into the British Imperial power structure in the other eastern colonies. The European Jewish refugees who came to Shanghai in the 1940’s had been fairly assimilated into German, Austrian, and eastern European society, and had as little in common with the anglicized Mizrachi Jews that saved them as they did with their Chinese neighbors. 

Hardly mentioned in the books, but relevant to our Book Club discussions are also the Kaifeng Jews, descended from traders in the inter-Temple period, who lived so peaceably in China for so many hundreds of years that eventually they intermarried and assimilated into near extinction. There are families left in Kaifeng who know they are Jewish but know longer have much sense of what that means. It posed the question to our Book Club of whether we need to maintain some sense of outsider identity as Jews in order to maintain our Judaism. But unlike the Ethiopian Jews, who also lived in isolation from the rest of the Jewish community for many generations and had different practices of Judaism, the Kaifeng Jews did not opt to accept the teachings of the Talmud and assimilate into European and Middle Eastern centric modern Judaism the way many African Jews have. Perhaps that decision is a stance against outside influence as well. In two weeks, when we read about Jacob’s death in the Torah, we will see that Joseph both embalms Jacob in the Egyptian tradition and also transports his body back to Canaan to be buried in the tradition of Abraham and Isaac. Maybe sometimes finding those compromises is also a way of resisting the enforcement of specific cultural norms, and that’s just as important as withstanding assimilation altogether. 

May we find safety and strength as Jews, living by our values and with our traditions in mind, in whatever way that feels honest. May we bring light into darkness, honor our identities, and may we live in peace among our neighbors. Amen, Shabbat Shalom and Chag Urim Sameach.

Sat, May 28 2022 27 Iyyar 5782