Joseph and the Maccabees

The man was just trying to make his way in a strange, new land. He didn't have any family with him; he was alone. He arrived, smuggled in against the law, as a vagrant, a slave, on the lowest social rung. He tried to learn their ways, he tried to learn their language, he tried to blend in. It was going to take a long time.

He ran afoul of the law, and landed in jail. He hadn't done anything wrong, but was caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. He got out of jail only because he had skills the government needed. Finally, he worked his way up the ladder to a level of success in his adopted homeland, kept quiet about his origins, married a woman from a highly respected family, had two sons, and lived a long life, no longer an immigrant, but at home. Though he always wondered about the family he left behind.

That probably sounds like a lot of people you know, especially if your parents or grandparents followed came here from someplace else. This story? It's about Joseph, Jacob's favorite son who got sold into slavery by his own brothers, got thrown in jail, got out of jail, and ended up with an Egyptian wife, two half-Israelite kids, and a really top job in government.

Joseph did, indeed, assimilate. He married a non-Israelite, raised his sons as Egyptians, adopted the customs, language, and clothing of Egypt. Even his own brothers didn't recognize him when they finally saw him again; granted, it had been 20 years, but he looked for all the world like an Egyptian. 

This time of year, we talk a lot about assimilation and identity. That other winter holiday has a pretty overwhelming presence. But it shouldn't be the "holiday which shall not be named"-it's Christmas. I have no problem with Christmas, other than how over the top it's gotten, but then, that's not my problem; it's the problem of the people who celebrate it. And believe me, many of my Christian friends, especially the ones who are clergy, are more distraught over what's become of the season than we are. I feel for them, I really do. Trying to keep things on a lower number on the dial is hard to do when everyone else has turned it up to ten. 

I grew up singing Christmas carols, touring the lights in Lincolnwood Towers, and lighting Chanukah candles. I wasn't confused. I wasn't envious. I didn't feel cheated. I felt great, and if there's one thing I regret in sending my kids to day school was that they didn't learn enough Christmas carols. They're fun and beautiful and culturally important, and a singer's gotta sing, sing, sing. 

Chanukah isn't only a red flag against assimilation. It's also a warning against extremism. The Maccabees/Hasmoneans fought the Greeks, but also imposed their strict beliefs on the other Jews at the time. They were violent and their reign didn't last long, brought down by corruption. They may have started out wanting to preserve tradition when faced with fellow Jews who had completely adopted Greek ways, but the truth is neither "side" saved the community.

There is much to like about the 21 st century American world, and yes, there is much to resist. But since when did acknowledging the beauty of another faith or culture diminish my Jewish self? This isn't a zero-sum game. It doesn't take away from my Jewish being to revel in the lights, music, and overall good cheer. The more you open yourself to the beauty in your own identity, the easier it is to recognize it in others. 

Anita Silvert is a freelance teacher and writer, living in Northbrook. You can read more of her weekly Torah musings on her blog, Jewish Gems, at www.anitasilvert.wordpress.com .





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