Seasonal Story: BU community celebrates Chanukah in all different ways

By Stefanie Tuder

            Max Emmer stands to the back of the crowd as everyone gathers around, excited to repeat Chanukahıs yearly ritual of lighting the menorah. The ones toward the front don kippot and know the prayers by heart, while people on the fringe admire the lights and smile at the familiar tradition. Emmer, not reciting the prayers, is content to simply be a part of the tradition and feels like he did his part. ³Now I can tell my mom I lit the candles,² he says. ³That means presents.² With the prayers over, Emmer heads home and the crowd thins, quickly emptying Marsh Plaza. Families across the country repeat the same act, but this group is a bit different. Here, at Boston University, hundreds of students, faculty and staff gather on Marsh Plaza in center campus to light a giant menorah as a celebration of this holiday season.

            The BU celebration of Chanukah runs differently than a typical commemoration for one simple reason: the variety of people. Reform, conservative and orthodox Jews--and everyone in between--come together on one campus to honor the Maccabean emancipation from repression. Unlike families who can easily celebrate at the appropriate level for their faith, BU students are a mix of people who want to follow their specific traditions usually under one roof: Hillel, the center for Jewish life on campus. Jewish students fall into two broad categories here: religious and cultural Jews. Both are celebrating Chanukah, albeit in very different ways and meanings. Religious Jews follow the traditions and history, while cultural Jews, a group staking a very different spot in Judaism, celebrate any way they know how and see fit.

            Michael ³Kip² Lombardo, director of student activities at Hillel, outlined some of the programs Hillel will be running this year. ³Weıre gearing up for Latkepalooza--weıll have music and food and candles as part of that social cultural celebration for Chanukah, and then during the actual week weıll have opportunities for candle lighting in the building every night, as well as on Marsh Plaza,² he said. Because of the mix of students that attend BU, Hillel tries to provide programming for all levels of Jewish students. ³People will come in because they are religious and making the mitzvot [Jewish rules of conduct as outline in the Torah]. Others are coming to eat latkes because they want the cultural aspect of the holiday,² Lombardo said. ³Weıll also have some learning sessions trying to explore the deeper meanings of what Chanukah is. Itıs multiple levels of activities. Some come to all, some come to some, some come to nothing.²

            But the choice is there, and Hillel works hard to facilitate celebration no matter what a studentıs involvement with Judaism is--nor do they care. They just want the roughly 3,000 Jewish students at BU to make some sort of connection to their heritage. ³Itıs that balance between trying to find a place for our students to be able to make a connection however they choose to define themselves at Boston University,² Lombardo said.

            On campus, Jewish students largely define themselves in two ways: religiously Jewish or culturally Jewish. Religious Jews are easier to identify; they follow the rules and practices of the religion, they believe in G-d, they engage in the rituals. Itıs cultural Jews, though, who may be harder to understand. Joseph Polak, Hillelıs rabbi, easily outlined his idea of the cultural jew. ³Bagels and lox,² he joked, quickly amending himself. ³Thatıs not a serious answer. Cultural judaism sees itself as engaged by the history of the Jewish people, by the cultural practices, sees itself in a post-religious age. ŒIım going to take what I want from it,ı the cultural Jew will say.²

            Though there are no statistics on how many BU students consider themselves religiously or culturally Jewish, Rabbi Polak said he sees many more secular, or cultural, Jews at Hillel, like Yoni Yuden, president of Hillelıs student board. Despite being heavily involved in Jewish life on campus through Hillel and growing up in Israel, Yuden himself is not religious. For him, Judaism is more of a heritage and tradition rather than a religion. ³Coming from Israel, I consider myself a Jew only because everyone around me is Jewish, and the lifestyle is based on the Jewish history and culture,² Yuden said. ³During all the holidays I know when they are and what theyıre about, but itıs not a religious element on my part. Itıs more about being with the family.²

            Emmer, a Jewish BU student not involved with Hillel, agreed more with Rabbi Polakıs joking take on cultural Judaism. ³I think the term ŒJAPı [Jewish American Prince/Princess] has been replaced with Œcultural Judaism,ı² Emmer said. ³I think itıs a nicer way of grouping kids. You donıt want to call a 21-year-old a JAP, but a cultural Jew embodies the same sort of characteristics: loud, obnoxious, flashy.² For Emmer, Chanukah isnıt about family or lighting the menorah--itıs about gifts. ³I couldnıt tell you the story of Chanukah, but I know youıre supposed to get presents,² he said.

            There is a growing number of students on campus and across the country who share Emmerıs limited knowledge about Judaism, yet still identify themselves as Jews, so going into the future, it is unclear how the religious aspect will flourish. Emmer said he thinks it might die out. ³In a broader sense I think religion will be lost on our generation. We donıt have the discipline or the passion for it that our parents and grandparents had, especially with the advances in education, technology and social interaction,² Emmer said. ³I donıt think people have the time or inclination to practice religion with the rigor that past generations have.²

            Rabbi Polak said he thinks the opposite of Emmer, that cultural Judaism is the one that will die out. ³Thereıs not enough there. People are not aware of it, but they need ritual, and one of things a religion provides is ritual. Secular Judaism provides it only in the most symbolic way, not in a way that is incumbent on you to follow the ritual,² Polak said. ³Whatıs growing is ignorant Judaism. People are not getting Jewish educations, and that group of Jews that is not educated Jewishly doesnıt find a biding value in what it knows about Judaism.²

            Emmer, though, despite his limited knowledge of Judaism, said he does find a biding and meaningful value to Judaism. ³If I have children, and they donıt want to go to Hebrew school, thatıs one thing,² he said. ³But I would like them to at least know a little about the history and interact with some Jewish kids. That sense of community is many times beneficial.²

            Providing a Jewish community at BU is Hillelıs mission, and because so many students subscribe to cultural Judaism, many of their activities center on the social side of the religion, like formals and sports clubs. But some cultural Jews see the importance in breeding knowledge about Judaism on college campuses, especially for non-religious Jews. Myrna Baron, executive director of the Center for Cultural Jews, works to bring classes on secular Judaism to college campuses. The latest college to receive a grant to start an academic program on cultural Judaism is Boston University, and starting in fall 2010, a program called The Other Within will begin, offering three different classes on cultural Judaism. Baron said they hope to produce a sense of community among Jewish students inside the culture. ³A professor at University of Massachusetts Amherst told us that after teaching her course, a student came up to her and said, ŒI now see myself on the continuum of Jewish history,ı² Baron said. ³And this is a secular Jewish student who had never taken a Jewish study course before. Thats exactly what we hope to achieve.²

            Michael Zank, associate professor of religion at BU, is heading up the program and excited for the implications at the university. ³I want students who come to BU to have an option other than the Hillel house and see that Judaism may mean that Iım gay and I love rock music and sometimes I like Hassidic stuff and sometimes I donıt and itıs okay and itıs interesting and itıs a vibrant culture that has its own legacies and roots all over the world,² Zank said. ³A lot of kids who are vaguely Jewish donıt feel comfortable going to synagogue and they want to do something without having to see a rabbi. They want to know whatıs going on, but they donıt want to be missionarized. They want to be exposed to some critical approach. Thatıs exactly what we can do.²

            The program will include three courses: the Modern Jew, the Political Jew and the Heretic Jew. Each will focus on three distinct areas of cultural Judaism--the modern experience of the Jew in todayıs less religious world, the politics of Judaism with Israel in the picture and those who chose to dissent from traditional religious Judaism. Zank wants students to come out of it understanding what cultural Judaism is. ³Itıs no holds barred. Itıs any form of cultural self-expression that those who produce it feel is significantly Jewish, and it can be Heeb [a Jewish magazine] or it can be the Talmud [the Jewish bible],² Zank said. ³But thereıs no difference in a certain sense. Anything that Jews do is Jewish. Thatıs cultural Judaism.²