(At least they’ve heard of Hanukkah. So that’s something, right? (Photo credit: The J Train via Flickr.com))
If you are Jewish and you don’t live in, say, New York City or Brookline, Massachusetts or a similarly constituted community, you may be familiar with the Hanukkah Stare. I live in an area where Judaism is inevitably a source of bewilderment to someone, so I encounter the Hanukkah Stare at least once each year. For the sake of the uninitiated, I’ll describe it before proceeding any further.
The Hanukkah Stare is received when a Jew walks into a store and asks an employee about the availability of either general or specific Hanukkah merchandise, and the employee has never heard of Hanukkah. The Stare commences immediately following the question, when the employee appears to suffer from a sudden state of immobility–facial muscles included.
The Jewish shopper repeats her question. This is when the Hanukkah Stare generally sets in for its longest stretch, as the employee, convinced the shopper is either speaking a foreign language (I suppose we are) or is just making stuff up, tries to figure out what the heck to do. Generally, there is no blinking.
A number of years ago, I wrote an essay for JewishFamily.com called “Finding Jewish Meaning in the Holiday Season.” My experience last week with a local flummoxed and slightly rude store clerk reminded me of why I wrote this essay back when my now ten-year-old son, “Jack,” was small. I reprint it here in the hopes that it can offer some inspiration to all those of us who still find ourselves dealing with the Hanukkah Stare and the other, less desirable reactions that sometimes accompany it.
Finding Jewish Meaning in the Holiday Season*
Being an American Jew in December means two things. First, it means celebrating Hanukkah, a minor holiday in our religion, but one that is eagerly anticipated by children who can’t wait to rip open their gifts as well as by adults who look forward to the holiday’s sanctioned consumption of latkes, sufganiyot and other foods fried in oil. Second, being Jewish in America at this time of year means facing the reality that in many places, observing Hanukkah instead of Christmas still marks us as different.
Two years ago, just after my son turned four, he and I patiently waited at the deli counter in our local grocery store. Christmas was only days away—as was Hanukkah—and the store was packed with happy celebrants stocking their carts. A merry, middle-aged shopper next to us in line thought she would pass the time by engaging the blond-haired, blue-eyed boy in my cart in some childish banter about his presumed holiday excitement.
“Is your tree all ready for Santa?” she asked, her sugary voice emphasizing the key Christmas terms.
I held my breath. I’d never minded responding to people’s assumptions about my holidays with a concise, “I’m Jewish; I celebrate Hanukkah.” But now my son, just four years old, faced the glare of public interrogation as he was challenged to explain his identity. How would he respond?