After the military moved our family seven times over the last seven years, I can say with confidence that I’m more grateful than ever to live in a place with a Jewish community. While criss-crossing the country, trying to forge a Jewish family and maintaining our identities, I’ve learned to appreciate several facets of American Jewish life.
In the spirit of Thanksgivukkah, I’m especially grateful for:
1) A welcoming spirit. The kind-hearted, slow speaking congregation in Pensacola who made my non-Jewish boyfriend feel at home. They led us to the rabbi who agreed to marry us–a Jew and a non-Jew–when we were having trouble finding one who would.
2) A thoughtful mensch. The group of Jews on vacation who met every night on Hanukkah on the bottom deck of the cruise ship we took for our honeymoon in the Gulf of Mexico. They found out that my new husband was on active duty, and one passenger took his name to her congregation, and to this day still sends him care packages when he’s deployed.
3) A powerful ritual. The hometown rabbi in San Antonio who gave us hugs and held our hands while we sobbed and sobbed during Kaddish for our dearly departed young friend. We had both driven from separate cities to be there to sit shiva as best we could.
4) An enduring gathering place. The tiny congregation in West Texas that meets in the seventies-style home downtown with shag carpeting. They only have enough sustaining interest to meet once a month, but they are determined and forward thinking and proud to do so.
5) A nosy friend. The self-styled “Frozen Chosen” Jews of South Dakota who meet in a retro-fitted two story home on the edge of town. Especially to the friend who whispered “Is that a mazel tov?” when she noticed I wasn’t drinking the wine at our mini-seder with mostly non-Jews. She was the first person besides my husband to learn I was pregnant.
6) A homecoming. The same kind-hearted, slow speaking Pensacola congregants who welcomed us all those years ago. They held our son, named for our friend who died, and showed him the memorial garden they planted for her.
7) An accommodating stranger. The well meaning chaplains in rural northwest Oklahoma who included us on the interfaith panel as they diligently tried to help us overcome the reality that being a Jewish family in remote locations often meant being alone.
8) A fresh start. The vibrant, casual southwest Tucsonians who welcomed us into their folds and overwhelmed us with organizations, temple options, playgroups, and party invites.
You see, even though our ties to Judaism were constantly severed with every move we made, there was always another well meaning person or place ready to pick up the slack. Call it continuity or community, fate or fumble, but it was there for us when we learned to look for it.
I imagined the road to maintaining our Judaism would be rough. Between our minority religious status, passive anti-Semitic remarks, simple misunderstandings, and year-to-year geographic uncertainty, how could it not be?
Looking back at Hanukkahs past, I see now that my worries were overblown. The saying “though she be tiny, she be fierce?” That’s our American Judaism how I see it. Those places with more, do more. Those places without, do just fine. It comes down to people. I am grateful to the many of them who have been part of our journey.
Oh, and I don’t have to throw the Hanukkah party this year. Another reason to be grateful.