At sundown on Dec. 11, many Jews around the world will light the first Hanukkah candle in their homes and say, “Baruch atta Adonai, eloheinu melech a’olam – Blessed are you Lord God, king of the universe.”
That night, at a Jewish home in north Oak Park – a home like dozens throughout the area – Elisa Lapine family’s will light their first Hanukkah candle and say “Baruch zemahn shel simhah, z’man shel or tikvah laohlahm – Blessed is the time of our celebration, time of light for hope in the world.”
For this family and others in the Secular Jewish Community and School of Oak Park, there’s no mention of God in blessings to be said during the coming eight-day holiday. Like the Jews who belong to Oak Park Temple B’nai Abraham Zion and to West Suburban Temple Har Zion in River Forest, this group of about 60 faithful values culture: history, music, literature and social justice. But unlike their counterparts at these local synagogues and many Jews worldwide, they draw the line at religion. The local Secular Jewish Community meets every Sunday morning from September to May at Irving Elementary School in Oak Park.
The member-led, member-run group was founded six years ago. Lapine was one of the founders. Michelle Brode was another. “I was raised in a tradition in which you don’t accept something just because it was handed down to you,” Brode says. “You have to look at it and make it yours.”
Both women grew up with parents who, they say, didn’t buy the God piece of being Jewish. Yet at the same time, Lapine and Brode feel, as their parents did, very Jewish.
Brode’s parents took her to Jewish art exhibits and had klezmer music playing on the stereo at home. The family would gather Friday nights to celebrate a day of rest, and they’d regularly travel together to Israel.
Lapine’s parents were part of a group that, in the late 1960s, helped found a secular Jewish community in Cleveland, Ohio. “They were essentially atheists who were identified as Jews culturally,” she says, “and they wanted us their children to have a Jewish education that was more relevant and more activist, so they created this community.”
She remembers loving the Hebrew school that the community ran on Sundays. It was a chance to meet up with Jewish friends, sing and dance, eat bagels with cream cheese, and learn some Yiddish. And even in a Jewish community defined as secular, there were gray areas, Lapine recalls. Her parents kept a kosher home. “They grew up in orthodox homes. They were not religious, but this is what they knew.”
What Lapine got to know, and keep, was family history. “For me,” she says, “the religious part was much more about being connected to this immigrant family of mine. My grandmother was from Hungary, survived the war and spoke Yiddish. The seder at my grandmother’s house would have 30 people sitting around the table … and the kids asking when they were going to eat.”
When asked what Hanukkah means to them, the 20 adults gathered on a recent Sunday morning in Oak Park talked about the smell of latkes (potato pancakes) frying, the klunk-klunk of a dreidel when the top stopped spinning, the taste of chocolate coins known as Hanukkah gelt, and the sound of children asking when they were going to eat.
What’s religion? What’s culture?
It was over a holiday meal that the local group first met: seder, the ritual feast that marks the beginning of the Jewish holiday of Passover. That meeting was in 2003, at Pilgrim Congregational Church, on Lake Street in Oak Park; 77 people attended.
For Hanukkah this year, the Secular Jewish Community of Oak Park will have two programs, one on Dec. 13 and the other on Dec. 18. Brode is head of the planning committee for the holiday observance. It’s another opportunity, she says, to sort through layers of Jewish heritage. “What is religious and what is part of our culture which has always been done in a religious way – that’s a question that’s forever in play and we figure it out each time with each decision point,” she says.
For the Dec. 13 program, Brode and her committee are finding inspiration in Judith Seid’s book God-Optional Judaism: Alternatives for Cultural Jews Who Love Their History, Heritage and Community. Their objective is to tell the story of Hanukkah, which deals with a revolt, and to draw out its ethical implications for these times. They’ll relate the lighting of candles near the winter solstice to festivals of light in other cultures around the world.
The second part of the community’s Hanukkah celebration will be a party on Dec. 18, replete with latkes, dreidels and a talent show.
The critical thinking that goes into such reshaping of tradition makes you take greater responsibility for what you believe, she says. But this kind of attention to detail can get lost. She jokingly refers to how she thinks casual observers may view the difference between her and her husband, who had a bar mitzvah in a Reform temple. “He has never dissected a Passover seder and gone through it word for word and asked why is this here and what does this mean and how does it relate to our lives today.” Yet, Brode says, “I think people often view my background as Judaism Lite and my husband’s as the real deal.”
The language, the activism
Giving her children language consistent with what she believes is a must for Lapine, who notes frustration in the fact that, among the secular Jews she grew up with, some would still recite traditional blessings as they’d light Hanukkah candles. It was, as Tevye would say, tradition. “I wanted my kids to not have to do these internal acrobatics about how do you say all these things in Hebrew that are really prayers to a deity, yet in English I say I don’t really believe in any of that,” Lapine points out.
“When we began, we rewrote everything to have it completely secular,” she says. In English, the paraphrase for the Hanukkah blessing sounds fine, according to Lapine. “But in Hebrew, the words sort of clank on your ear,” she says. “How do we bring it so it’s still poetic and people can have an emotional connection and yet so that it can be translated in a way that’s not offensive or in opposition to what we actually think?”
An interesting discussion, Brode says.
Cara Shapiro is the community’s president. She refers to a vibe Jews can feel among each other even when they’re not particularly religious. “In my travels throughout the world, when I’ve met Jewish people, there’s sort of a connection there that is hard to put your finger on,” Shapiro says. “We come from so many different backgrounds. It’s something intangible that holds us together.”
And that bond, for Shapiro, isn’t religion. “I always knew I was Jewish, but it was purely a cultural identity. In my mind, it was New York Jewish – a certain sensibility, a kind of humor: eating Chinese food on Christmas.”
Humor is a strong tie. One of the Yiddish songs the adults and children at Irving School sing on Sunday mornings is “Oy mayn kepele tut meer vey – Oh, my head hurts.” Verse by verse, the song gets to cover pretty much the whole body.
In its table of contents, the songbook of the Secular Jewish Community of Oak Park also lists If I Had a Hammer, Little Boxes, and This Land Is Your Land. In noting that many secular Jews have records by the Weavers and Woody Guthrie in their collections, Shapiro brings up another matter with which the community is grappling: Is social activism in the core belief system of secular Judaism?
“My mother, for example,” Shapiro says, “came from a kind of workers’ socialist thing and that was enmeshed with being Jewish. Some in our community don’t come from that background and find it kind of alienating, so that, too, has been questioned: i.e. what is part of being a secular Jew and what is not.”
In telling the story of how her parents helped found a secular Jewish community in Cleveland in 1967, Lapine refers to the backdrop of the Vietnam War and her parents protesting the conflict in Southeast Asia and demonstrating for civil rights. Social action, she recalls, was foremost in their thinking. “My father would talk about religion as the opiate of the masses. It was a dirty word,” Lapine says.
‘Plurality of Jewish tradition’
Tolerance is vital, Shapiro says, and a sure sign of the Secular Jewish Community of Oak Park. Openness to more than one way of doing things, Lapine points out, has its voices in the Jewish community. Among them she counts Art Blecher, the rabbi at Beth Chai, the Greater Washington Jewish Humanist Congregation in the District of Columbia. In talking about “the plurality of Jewish tradition,” Blecher allows for the evolution of tradition.
Shapiro is married to a man who is not Jewish. She doesn’t keep many Jewish traditions at home other than lighting Hanukkah candles. “My daughter and I like lighting the candles,” she says. “Sometimes I’ll make latkes and sometimes I don’t.”
She and her daughter will say the secular blessing at Sunday School with the rest of the community. When the two of them light the candles at home, they’ll say the traditional blessing. “I kind of like the fact,” Shapiro says, “that I’ve got this tiny little traditional piece stuck in my head. And my daughter knows it, and we can do it together.”