Latkes, here I come

December 9th, 2009

I was planning to blog today about your awesome comments on my “holiday joys and woes” post, and how although Hanukkah doesn’t do it for me on any level, what you wrote helped. Because I realized that all of your joys had to do with stuff you did — not consumed, not believed — so maybe I should just stop trying to figure out Hanukkah and fry a pancake already. And how this relates to a particular scene in the Torah and the concept of na’aseh v’nishma, and what it means to have “experiential learning” in a religion as intellectual and text-based as Judaism, and all that …

And then I saw this. Senator Orrin Hatch, a Mormon from Utah, has written a Hanukkah song.

Now, let me make two points:

1. His song actually doesn’t suck. (There’s a video linked, you can judge for yourself. It’s not great, but in the canon of Hanukkah music, there’s worse. Trust me.)
2. Irving Berlin wrote “White Christmas” (and also “Easter Parade”), so hey, it’s all good. This is America, buddy.

What is not all good is this:

At one point, Mr. Hatch unbuttons his white dress shirt to expose the golden mezuzah necklace he wears every day. Mezuzahs also adorn the doorways of his homes in Washington and Utah. Mr. Hatch keeps a Torah in his Senate office.

“Not a real Torah, but sort of a mock Torah,” he said. “I feel sorry I’m not Jewish sometimes.”

Well, dude, YOU AREN’T, so suck it the heck up. And I think “mock” Torah pretty well describes it. “Sort of a mock Torah”? How in the name of Ceiling Cat is this in any way showing honor to the Jewish people you claim to respect, Senator Hatch?

If you are not a member of a religious group, it does not honor the people who are to go using their sacred objects or religious symbols as freakin’ accessories. Got it? If you are given something as a gift, with the understanding that it is a cultural/artistic item representing a different faith, that is one thing. (I have a Ganesh statue that was given to everyone who attended a friend’s Big Fat Hindu Wedding a few years back, and some Ukranian Easter eggs from my Ukranian, Christian mother.) Otherwise, no. Religions are not sports teams. You don’t run around wearing the jersey because you like how we play the game. You can attend services, you can study the texts, you can join interfaith groups, you can eat the food, but you do not dress up like something you aren’t. (For more on that, see PeaceBang here.)

Senator Hatch of all people should know this. Interfaith pieties aside, we are not “all one.” Religions differ in fundamental ways. Senator Hatch is a Mormon, and Mormons apparently feel so strongly about protecting their own religious symbols and practices against the casual curiosity or faux-identification of “Mormons for a Day” that they don’t even allow non-Mormons into their temples or allow us to view certain ceremonies. And that’s their perfect right. What if I decided that I, a Jew, was nonetheless a big fan of the Mormonism, and wanted to express that by wearing temple garments under my clothes? Does that put it in perspective for you, Senator Hatch?

And yet, I must thank you. Because your offensive co-opting of my religion has, in fact, inspired me this Hanukkah. If you can celebrate my holiday, I sure as hell can. I am going to make those damn latkes, and I am going to get that wax off my menorah, probably by melting it off with the scorching gaze of my contemptuous laser-eyes and the hot breath of my profanity-laced rant at your discourtesy-masquerading-as-tolerance. (You folks think this is a profanity-laced rant? This is nothing. I can and do kick it “Deadwood“-style when necessary.)

So thank you, Senator Hatch, for teaching me the true meaning of Hanukkah. Which is, frankly, that we need to protect our religions. That we need to set boundaries. That courtesy is not only about acknowledging what binds us together, but about respecting what keeps us apart.


23 Responses to “Latkes, here I come”

  1. Ilyse on December 9, 2009 2:01 pm

    Yes! I completely agree! All the Jewish sites are making a big deal out of this, like it’s supposed to be a GOOD thing? Well, Senator Hatch sporting a mizzuzah creeps me out. Maybe because he IS Mormon and they have been known to posthumously baptize Jews every now and again, this makes it more offensive for me. Maybe because I’m skeptical of his sincerity, intention and his motivation. Whatever it it is, I’m with ya. Happy freakin’ Hanukkah!

  2. Robin on December 9, 2009 2:04 pm

    Wow, really? I haven’t checked the Jewish blogosphere reax. We’re HAPPY about this?

    I just can’t believe a Mormon of all people would not get how disrespectful this is.

  3. Jon on December 9, 2009 2:42 pm

    As a former Mormon, allow me to explain, not excuse, Mr. Hatch’s motives. Mormonism sees itself as a continuation of God’s revelation from Adam, through Abraham, through Jesus, through Joseph Smith. Now, obviously Jews do not see Mormonism as legitimate heirs of Jewish tradition, but as a *doctrinal* point, Mormons do see themselves that way and an integration of Jewish symbols and practice is meant as a sign of respect for a tradition that Mormons feel is also their heritage. So the what-if-I-wore-temple-garments analogy is a little unfair since you, presumably, do not feel like Mormon covenants are part of your religious heritage.

  4. Gnatalby on December 9, 2009 2:53 pm

    I generally love your advice, but I think this response is a little America/monotheism centric. It’s only in apocalyptic religions where you have to declare the right one or be damned that this perimeter policing is common.

    In many parts of Asia for example, it IS popular to sport the symbols of other faiths. My friend brought me back from Japan a necklace that’s a silver cross wearing its own cross.

  5. Robin on December 9, 2009 3:22 pm

    @Jon, I do get that. Many Christians, in fact, feel that way. Most Jews disagree. And I think the Jews should get the deciding vote, because the symbols were ours to begin with. On a practical matter, we’ve lost that argument because of the overwhelming Christianity of the Western world, but that doesn’t mean that I have to like or approve of it.

    @Gnatalby, of course my response is America/montheism-centric! This is about the behavior of Americans in the Abrahamic faiths. (And not all branches or denominations of those faiths say “declare the right one or be damned.” Liberal Christians usually don’t, and Jews, well, if you Jewish you’re Jewish, and if you’re not … you’re not, and we leave you alone to go figure out your own path.) You want me to write about the behavior of people in Eastern religions, ask me a question or send me a story to respond to! (And how can a cross wear its own cross?? That’s so Escher.)

  6. Dave's not here! on December 9, 2009 3:38 pm
  7. Gnatalby on December 9, 2009 4:47 pm

    Well, do you have a problem with christians and jews doing yoga? How about jews going on meditation retreats (very popular here in Israel)?

    There’s a circle loop around the top of the cross and hanging from that is another, tinier cross. It’s pretty hilarious.

  8. Robin on December 9, 2009 5:23 pm

    Gnatalby (enough of this silly “@” business!), I don’t object to anyone doing yoga, but if Hindus (or whoever invented it and uses it as a spiritual practice) did, well, I’d honor that. But practices like stretching while breathing, or eating bread and drinking wine, are basic to human behavior. Keeping fake Torah in your office is not.

  9. Gnatalby on December 9, 2009 5:40 pm

    I think there’s a difference between coincidentally stretching while breathing and sitting down in your yoga class, and starting with an invocation is awkward white people sanskrit, which is definitely what’s happened at the last two yoga studios I’ve been to.

    I think we might just disagree on this point, but I think that the cultural blending bell can’t really be unrung at this point, even if some expressions of it are tackier than others. I mean, he’s not trying to deceive people that he is Jewish.

    But… I am also a UU and am getting an MA studying religion, so I have a quite a collection of stuff from other cultures, some of which was gifted to me, and some of which I got for myself.

  10. MaryAnne on December 9, 2009 5:51 pm

    As a Christian, a Catholic, I have always wondered why Christians don’t celebrate the Jewish holidays. Jesus was a Jew, he celebrated them. I wonder at what point Christians stopped the Jewish traditions and why?

    That being said (or asked), I get Robin’s issue with Senator Hatch. I can relate it to my distaste when I see Rosary Beads used as jewelry.

  11. Robin on December 9, 2009 7:51 pm

    Gnatalby, I wouldn’t go to a yoga class like that, and the fact that so many of them *are* like that is part of why I don’t go to yoga classes any more. It’s just too weird to walk into a studio and not know if you’re going to gym class or a religious service! Some folks, btw, are debating this from a UU perspective over at PeaceBang’s:
    http://beautytipsforministers.com/2009/12/09/miss-conduct-tears-it-up/

    Also, you’ll note that I never said you have to color within the lines of your own religion exclusively. I think it’s fine that Senator Hatch wrote a Hanukkah song. I think it’s *weird*, but I like weird. And hey, if he were in town and wanted to come to Torah study with me, what the heck, I’d take him. But making fake versions of another religion’s most holy object to decorate your office and wearing, on your person, the symbol of another religion–nope. Disrespectful.

    MaryAnne, I too am fascinated by the first two centuries of the Common Era, and the philosophy and politics of how Christianity became a religion separate from the Jewishness of the man Jesus.

  12. Rebecca on December 9, 2009 8:39 pm

    I think something in a similar vein is taking the Christian fish symbol and putting “Darwin” in it, etc. I am not a Christian, but I could see how taking this religious symbol and turning it into something else could be offensive (but maybe that’s the point?).

    And I know that this is different than what Sen. Hatch is doing; something about it seems similar to me, though.

  13. Ilyse on December 9, 2009 9:18 pm

    I’m no expert, but from what I’ve read, it was the Apostle Paul who broke with Judaic traditions and cut the ties between Judaism and Christianity esp. regarding Shabbat and the Jewish holidays and rituals. Btw, I always chuckle when yoga teachers do the whole Namaste thing:)

  14. Phira on December 10, 2009 11:58 am

    I think that what bothers me about Senator Hatch’s attitudes towards these Jewish symbols (and towards Chanukah) is that they’re not done with real respect. Chanukah isn’t even a major holiday, as many of us know (and if you didn’t before, now you do, and knowledge is power, etc.).

    Why keep a mock Torah? Why is it a MOCK Torah? What is he even doing with it? Is he studying it? Or does he have it as a token? I don’t understand it.

    I don’t think that this person really has what I would consider respect for Judaism.

    Ilyse, it was Paul, if I remember correctly.

  15. Dave's not here! on December 10, 2009 12:55 pm

    We’re going to expect a report on how the latkes turned out.

  16. Robin on December 10, 2009 2:31 pm

    DNH, they’re going to turn out well, because I’m going to my in-laws tomorrow night. My father-in-law is the Great Potato Patriarch, and after a tutorial in his latke technique, there is no way mine can fail to be anything but superb! But yes, I will try to provide visual if not gustatory evidence of my attempts to my readers.

  17. JoGeek on December 10, 2009 3:12 pm
  18. Robin on December 10, 2009 6:34 pm

    JoGeek, INTERESTING! Thank you for sharing that. Did you see in the news a month or so ago where several (white) people died doing a “sweat lodge”?

    Ilyse & Phira, yes, it was Paul. And a big part of why the Jewish laws (which Jesus was clear should be followed) got abandoned, as far as I’ve learned, was because of circumcision. Good luck attracting a lot of adult converts to your religion if that’s step one! But if you say circumcision isn’t necessary, then you have to throw out the rest of it, too, because circumcision is the first and most important sign of the covenant.

    Rebecca, intriguing point about the Darwin fish. I’ve always liked them, but I see them as a political protest against the kind of Christians who want to suppress science. Although, now that I think more about it, it does lump all Christians into one, er, fishbowl, as it were, which is unfair and probably doesn’t help the cause. But still, in a way, desecrating or destroying a symbol is more respectful than appropriating it or kitsching it up. It’s like flag etiquette–it is actually honoring the meaning of an American flag more to burn it in protest than to make a BIKINI out of it.

  19. Shulamuth on December 10, 2009 7:44 pm

    What do we mean by “mock”? I had what I would consider a not-a-real-Torah from the time I was confirmed and the synagogue gave it to me (3rd generation Reform here) until I gave it to my niece in honor of her being called to Torah. It was a miniature scroll, and it was printed rather than scribally written. I’m not sure you could call any of the books titled Torah on my selves “real” Torahs, either; they are books that contain the words of the Torah (or an English translation of those words). As I understand it, the English translation of the Koran I have is not the Koran, either, since by definition the Koran exists only in Arabic. And while perhaps doctrinally less true, how “real” are the translations of various other religious works I have. In fact, probably the only thing I have in English that I’d assume was THE book is the Book of Mormon (and isn’t that supposedly a translation as well?). Not to let too much cultural insensitivity off the hook, but it’s possible Hatch was trying to make clear that he didn’t have an actual Torah in his office.

  20. Shulamuth on December 10, 2009 7:52 pm

    Oh, and the comment I was going to make after just the first paragraph:

    I dislike the turning of Channukah into “the Jewish Christmas” quite a lot, but as a minor holiday it’s a nice one. Lights (lights always good at winter holidays!), music, games, good food — what’s not to like? Purim is a minor historical holiday too and
    I generally go all out for it.

  21. Rachel Gurevitz on December 11, 2009 10:16 am

    I’m with you on this one, but the foundation of my discomfort with Sen. Hatch’s contribution was a little different. Please take a look at my blog piece at
    http://shmakoleinu-hearourvoices.blogspot.com I’d love to hear your reactions.

  22. BL Barr on December 14, 2009 3:02 pm

    This is an interesting issue! I saw that article and video about Senator Hatch and it also made me vaguely uncomfortable/insulted and I wasn’t sure exactly why. Thank you for articulating it.

    I’ve often thought about getting a statue of Buddha because Buddhism is cool and Buddha is kind of cute, but I’m not a Buddhist and there’s always that vague worry about keeping ‘idols’ in the house!

    And I’m also threatening to make latkes this year, after a very long time…

  23. Robin on December 14, 2009 4:20 pm

    BL, from a Jewish perspective, you’re fine. We can keep “idols” in our houses as long as we don’t worship them. (I learned this at the Jewish Museum in New York, and I wouldn’t have the Ganesha in my house otherwise.) From a Buddhist perspective? It feels disrespectful to their religion to me, but I’m not a Buddhist. Maybe they’re more laid back about that kind of thing than I am. Gnatalby’s original comment would seem to suggest so.

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