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The Bad Jew

The Bad Jew

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Growing up, Chanukah was always my favorite holiday. I mean, isn't Chanukah every kid's favorite holiday? There were presents and Chanukah parties nightly, latkes and chocolate coins, sitting around and singing endless songs with my family. While I didn't necessarily find so much beauty or enjoyment in other aspects of Judaism as I grew up, Chanukah always remained the one holiday I felt a strong connection to.

Until I went to college.

Our little group represented just about every color, creed and religionI don't remember where or if or how I celebrated Chanukah my freshman year, but what happened my sophomore year is something I will never forget. About a week before Chanukah I discovered that my parents had sent me a gift through a local Jewish organization on campus. I hadn't known this Jewish group existed at my school, let alone gone to visit their center. With me that day when I went to pick up the package was my roommate Jen, a Japanese-American woman, as well as my best friend Viviana, who was Mexican-American; there was also Harley, who was French, Trichette, from the Caribbean, Melanie who was Indian and a girl from Ireland. Our little group represented just about every color, creed and religion possible.

I was feeling way too cool and hip to actually hang out with my fellow Jewish students, who were too outwardly proud of their own religion for my comfort level. So I quickly took my package and left with my friends, eager to open it. Inside there was a little tin menorah, a box of blue and white candles and of course, the little chocolate gelt that I so loved. Yet looking at the menorah, I realized that I was going to need some instructions to even remember when or how to light.

Thinking out loud, I looked at my friends and said, "Wow, I feel like such a bad Jew, I can't even remember which way you light it, if it's from right to left or left to right…" Before I could figure out why I chose to share this concern of mine, my very own roommate, Jen, the Japanese-American, looked at me and said, loud and clear, "Bad Jew… off to the showers with you!"

Even as I write this now, more than fifteen years after it happened, I get the chills. I honestly can't even tell you what happened immediately after that, as I just don't remember. What I do remember is that everything stopped, froze actually, and then my mind started racing as I tried to come up with another explanation, another possibility for what she could have meant. Though no matter how hard I tried, there was simply no explanation...

There was a collective gasp after Jen's remark, followed by absolute silence. No one said anything. I would like to hope that it was only because they were too shocked to speak, for the possibility that they weren't bothered by it is too much to bear. I don't remember walking back to our apartment, the very apartment I shared with this person. The next thing I recall is sitting on my bed, and my best friend, Viviana, was sitting next to me and crying. She couldn't even talk, she just cried and hugged me and told me she was so sorry.

Even more, I hated her for taking away Chanukah from meNeedless to say, that incident essentially ended my friendship with Jen. She did apologize, over and over again about how it came across wrong and it was just a joke and she didn't really mean it. I did believe she was sorry, truly sorry. But I felt she was sorry that she verbalized it, not that she was sorry that she thought it and most likely felt it. I could forgive her carelessness in opening her mouth when she shouldn't have, but how do you forgive someone when they share their true feelings, and those feelings are hatred towards you and your people?

That Chanukah I did not light the menorah. I did absolutely nothing to celebrate Chanukah. At the time, I felt I couldn't. Everything related to Chanukah suddenly was defined by that statement. Every time I looked at the menorah, all I could think of was "Bad Jew…" I hated Jen so much for what she had said, but even more, I hated her for taking away Chanukah from me.

At the time, I had no way of knowing that this incident would be a major turning point in my life. It turns out that the most significant and life-changing choices I have probably ever made were based on my reaction to her statement. Prior to that day, I had planned on spending my junior year in France. I wanted something exciting and new and foreign. But after that Chanukah, I changed my mind and immediately applied for a space at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. I realized that the only way I could combat what had happened would be to take the time to connect to the very people and place that clearly so many still hated.

My stay in Israel was very difficult at first, and quite a few times I wondered why I had even bothered coming. I was in a situation where due to a falling-out with my parents, I was financially independent that year. With no savings, my only option was to work full-time while studying at the university. The result was a pretty miserable existence. While my friends were out having fun, traveling and enjoying their experience in Israel, I was either in class or working as a waitress, and I rarely saw much outside the classroom or restaurant walls.

During Chanukah break, most of the other kids were visited by their parents and were brought great gifts. This only increased my negativity and left me feeling even more alone and deserted. At that point in time, it seemed that Jen's statement had taken my love of Chanukah away from me for good.

I wanted to buy something that would last and be meaningfulThen, the day before Chanukah, I came back to my dorm room and there was a card lying on my bed. It read simply, "With wishes for a happy Chanukah. Buy yourself something special!"

Felicia was a girl in the program who knew about my situation and how hard I was working that year. Her parents had come to visit and had given her $100 to buy something for herself. She decided to give me that money.

Needless to say, this was one of the most generous and moving gifts I had ever received. Her love and support completely lifted me out of the depression in which I was quickly sinking. The night before Chanukah I took the money and went shopping. I wanted to buy something that would last and be meaningful. I decided that the one thing I really wanted was a beautiful menorah. I wanted a menorah that I could look at and love and not one that would remind me of Jen.

I spent hours searching for the perfect menorah and finally decided on one where all the branches could move except for the shamash. I felt it perfectly symbolized how I was feeling in life, with everything moving around me and changing, yet at the center of it all, at the core, was stability. That Chanukah I lit the menorah every night, and as I watched the flames leap upwards and increase with the nights, I allowed myself to shed the anger and resentment I had been carrying around with me.

That Chanukah I realized, in a very personal way, that fighting darkness with darkness accomplishes absolutely nothing. But even more so, that there was no point in fighting at all. All I needed to do was bring in light, illuminate myself and my surroundings, and the darkness would immediately dissipate and disappear.

As I recited the blessings - first the one thanking G‑d for the commandment to light the candles, then the blessing about remembering the miracles that were done for our forefathers "in this time" - I realized that this is exactly what it meant. We are all fighting our wars, some with the Greeks outside of ourselves, some with the Greeks within. And they are trying to destroy us, to bring us down, if not physically, then emotionally and spiritually. But we can fight them, and win, even when it seems that all around us it is dark.

Chanukah falls during the two months of the longest nights. There is more darkness during this time than any other time. And if we allow it, the darkness can consume us. But we not only can, but are obligated to banish that darkness. We are commanded to bring light, and increase that light, night after night.

This incident was truly a blessing in disguiseI still get a bit sick when I think about this incident. But I also now recognize that it was truly a blessing in disguise. It was specifically the depth of that darkness, the hurt and hatred which I experienced, which was the catalyst for me to make a change. Change can be hard, and in my case, was very hard. Yet all it took was the love and help of another, the act of one who cared, to turn everything around again.

In the end, my year in Israel was a turning point in my life. Though my program itself was secular, I had the opportunity that year to reconnect and learn about Judaism in an authentic and focused way. And while my decision to live a Torah-observant life was quite a process in itself, it really began that Chanukah - or more precisely, the Chanukah before that Chanukah!

I still have that menorah sitting on my bookshelf. It has traveled with me around the world, and not a Chanukah passes that it isn't lit. Now, as I light with my husband, a rabbi, and our four beautiful children, I look at that menorah and the range of emotions and lessons that it holds. I look at its moveable arms and think about how quickly things can change, but that no matter what situation we find ourselves in, the flame will always bring us light and warmth as it strives to help us reach higher.

Happy Chanukah!

Sara Esther Crispe, a writer, inspirational speaker and mother of four, is the co-director of Interinclusion, a nonprofit multi-layered educational initiative celebrating the convergence between contemporary arts and sciences and timeless Jewish wisdom. Prior to that she was the editor of TheJewishWoman.org, and wrote the popular weekly blog Musing for Meaning. To book Sara Esther for a speaking engagement, please click here.
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Sarah Jerusalem IL November 21, 2017

What a lovely account of light triumphing over darkness--thank you for sharing this! Reply

Anonymous Palisades, NJ January 2, 2017

Another take on this i think writer felt guilty (you know how we are) about a variety of things connected to her Jewishness: not knowing the Jewish organization existed; that it was on campus; not having reason to go there until something material showed up for her; not staying to meet the other Jews she saw there; feeling above (too cool) and embarrassed by proud Jews; and didn't know how to light the candles. Thinking out loud? Writer called herself "bad Jew" hoping for a response. Any response would allow writer to project guilt over her abandonment or distancing from Yiddishkeit onto another who was left to drag it around for the rest of her life. If Jen said "No, you're not a bad Jew" or "Yes, your Yiddishkeit should be stronger" the result would have been the same: Basis for sufficient drama to justify ending that Mini UN and reestablishment of strong pure Yiddishkeit. New menorah was a good way to renew commitment. Jen probably figured it out and was more cautious when speaking. (Mot a bad thing). Reply

Michael F. Minneapolis December 29, 2016

While I am happy for the writer that she used a negative experience to grow and to grow closer to Yiddishkeit, I don't agree with her decision to end a friendship over an ignorant comment from a person who most likely didn't understand the insensitivity of her remark.
I am not in the position to fault the writer for her decision - no one is - but based on what she wrote, I am not in agreement with her assessment of her former friend's hatred of her and her people.
We don't know why this young woman said what she said. Maybe she heard someone else say it. Maybe in a movie. Maybe she heard a Jew say it. Many people, Jews included, have a morbid sense of humor and are capable of saying much worse things without an ounce of hatred behind it.
What I read was that the young woman felt very bad about it and apologized over and over again. Maybe she deserved to be forgiven.
A Freilichen Chanukah to you all! Reply

Coby Lang Denver December 20, 2016

The author LIVED the story... It cracks me up how there are all these comments trying to explain to the author what this person MAY have meant. Or trying to tell her she was overreacting. Here's a thought: SHE WAS THERE. And while you only know what is written, she lived it and you can be sure that at some point she clarified exactly what was meant. You really think years later this story would have been written if her friend was referring to a cold shower after a sports game? Reply

soccer player December 20, 2016

In sports, being "sent to the showers" means having to leave the playing field early because of a mistake or a foul (or not playing very well) - at least in my native language. So that's what I understood until I read the next few lines, when I realized that the author and her friend Viviana evidently understood something very different. Only Jen herself could tell us what she meant back then... But the people who died al kiddush hashem were killed for being Jewish, not for "not being Jewish enough", so my guess is that Jen was talking sports here. Anyhow, the remark sparked the author's journey, as she describes, so I won't say "next time, ask her what she meant"... Reply

counselor October 15, 2015

Good thing you shared your story, so I could read it and relieve you of your trauma. I think it is true to certain extent that Jews have a certain kind of paranoia (justifiably so). But some people have a dark sense of humor. That's just how it is. Maybe it's your lack of exposure to it. But many people really joke like that (ever heard of Sarah Silverman?) You think your friend didn't know it was wrong to say that? That was the whole point of the joke! It was such an unbelievable and grotesque statement in such stark contrast to the situation (you really think she honestly thought you were supposed to be excecuted for not knowing how to light chanukah candles, common!)! That was the joke! It is extremely absurd for someone to be killed for not knowing how to light the candles! I am sorry you had to lose a friend over it, I am 100% sure she didn't mean any harm to you or be hurtful to you, it was her way to lighten up the atmosphere in her mind. Ah, the burden of multiculturalism! Reply

Sarah Jerusalem IL November 21, 2017
in response to counselor:

I think you miss the point -- the sort of casual antisemitism born of bigotry because Jew-jokes are considered "funny" by non-Jews. I remember being treated to one in high school: "Have you heard about the newest German microwave? Seats 6 Jews." There is nothing "multicultural" or humorous about such statements, especially since there are still Holocaust survivors among us. I'm 100% sure her friend meant to score "cool" points by being outrageous and did it by expressing her bigotry (because the "N" word is now off-limits---or would that be "funny" too if we told lynching jokes?). You're trying too hard to excuse this, dear not-so-closeted-bigot. Reply

Lena Australia March 24, 2015

As a young Jewish lady myself I would not personally get upset if a housemate called me a bad Jew in a joking manner due to the fact I had forgotten how to light the menorah. I don't think I would hold it against someone and form some kind of hate to people just because of that? I find hating people is not good for anyone, especially if that person apologised too. I'm somewhat surprised! that someone would get upset about that. I hope that the author has moved on from this moment in their life instead of holding a vendetta. Yes people can say these things but I'd see it as "oh your mistake, go have a shower and think about it" everyone thinks in the shower????? Hello!!!
It's like putting on a dunce hat.
Anyway instead of rolling it into anti semitism maybe don't read into things so much my friends! It does not do well to dwell on these situations!
However I guess it lead you in the right direction on learning more about your culture and surrounding yourself in it which is beautiful. Reply

Dayna San Antonio,Tx December 13, 2012

Feeling the same. I am a Mexican American convert with Jewish heritage,and I am surrounded by non mexican american Jews. I came to Judaism with the hope of mend the break in the Jewish linage. And I can't tell you how many ugly comments I have have heard from ignorant people, the worst was when I invited my friends to my first ever Hanukkah gathering. I was a bit shy and nervous of celebrating these festivals by myself so I invited my best friends who are Christian. I at first got disapproving looks and uncomfortable smirks, and a " yeah... Sure". But the icing on this awkward cake, was my friend Jared's comment, " I rather not go because I believe, in Jesus Christ our lord and savior". I was in shock my best friend of three years, who has never done anything to me hurtful before,showed his true colors for the first time. I didn't let that slide, I said " you are so selfish Jared, I show you endless love and support, for everything you do, and you have to be ----, about this"! I'm glad I said that! Reply

Sigal Zoldan Los Angeles, CA December 9, 2012

Thank you for sharing this story I am planning to have a Chanukah candle lighting tomorrow night, second night on Chanukah. Some of the guests are Jewish and some are not. As I was looking online to find an inspirational story to share with my friends, I read a few story and after reading this one, I knew that this is the story that I will share tomorrow. It is amazing to me how in away, we need to experience anger, resentment and hurt in order to grow. Your hurt Sarah lead you to find your way, lead you to the light. Yes, it was a process, an awakening process and the beauty is that you did wake up and realized that you can't fight darkness with darkness. I am practicing healing as a profession and I am committed to bring more light through the work I do, through helping people look at the opportunity for growth from their negative experience and to find the jewel in what is in front of them. I feel that I have a special place in my heart for Chanukah as we have the opportunity to bring more light into our world Reply

Anonymous Chicago, IL July 18, 2012

Japanese People. Remember something. The japanese people suffered terribly as well; they have a completely sick sense of humor, and I don't think she meant it. It doesn't forgive what she said at all, please don't get me wrong. But look at what happened to them in America. From Tokyo Rose in Chicago, having a shop where her descendants DAILY have to suffer having people come in and ask, "Was your grandmother Tokyo Rose?"

It's horrible what wars do to people, what the wars did to people.

I am NOT saying that your roommate/friend was ok for saying what she said. It was unconscionable. But she was perverted in the mind because she came out of that culture.

Think about your own culture and all of the things it expects of people. Reply

sandra rosenberg san diego, CA July 9, 2012

the joke about the "showers" It was just an obvious joke. Jen is lucky to be rid of you. You're too sensitive and ready to complain about what's in the historic past. Reply

Gabbe' Fort Worth, TX December 22, 2011

Don't Fight, Light! What a gift this is, "All I needed to do was bring in light, illuminate myself and my surroundings, and the darkness would immediately dissipate and disappear ". Every year I too get a life changing gift during Chanukah. I have been experiencing a time of "lean-ness" like that of your Hebrew University days. Despite my circumstances I have been finding things to give to others in need. As I read your story I now understand that it is my way of illuminating myself and all that is around me with light. I have a plan to "light up" someone's life everyday of Chanukah and I am even more excited to do. I now know that my job is not to fight but to "light". Thank you for using something so dark and turning it to light.

Eternally Grateful,
Gabbe' Reply

Anonymous December 7, 2010

Inspiring Thank you Sara for relating your own Chanukah life-story, which I found so inspiring because of the way you dealt with a bad experience. Thank you also for encapsulating profound thoughts and principles that we all may live by -- e.g. "..fighting darkness with darkness accomplishes absolutely nothing. ... All I needed to do was bring in light;" "We are all fighting our wars...but we can fight them, and win, even when it seems that all around us it is dark;" "no matter what situation we find ourselves in, the flame will always bring us light and warmth as it strives to help us reach higher." And a very Happy Chanukah to you too. Reply

HCS Redmond December 6, 2010

Appreciation for your story I have often felt disconnected from my roots. I appreciate you sharing your story it has meaning for me on many levels. I feel very sad that someone would joke like that. I was a little surprised that when people learned of my Jewish heritage some people were actually critical and even made unkind remarks. Your story helps me feel more courageous and that I can keep the celebrations of my heritage and not be afraid. Thank you Reply

Dan Sichel Coarsegold, Ca. December 1, 2010

Who knew? A tasteless joke that brought Teshuva. Out of death, sweetness. HaShem can use and redeem anything if there is an open heart that seeks the truth involved. Imagine if Jen had NOT made that joke? You should find her and thank her, and tell her why. Reply

ana australia November 29, 2010

to michael the average christian, athiest, agnostic etc etc would have all been outraged. people forget that christ was a jew, from a long line of jews. any christian that does not revere jewish heritage is not a christian. i am a work in progress, i probably would have slapped her. lol Reply

Anonymous November 29, 2010

I went berserk when my ex husband, who was in the military, pointed an unloaded gun at me and in a 5 year old voice said, "Bang bang, you're dead!" I would leave him a few months later. That was the pivotal moment when I decided that we were through. Everyone said that I was over reacting, but it was other things, too.

We don't joke about killing people.

This article isn't about Jen, not really. It isn't about people who slay with words. It's about overcoming darkness with light and moving on. I didn't get the feeling as some other posters are that you are still mad at Jen. I get the feeling that you have moved on and this menorah is a way to overcome the stab to your heart. Thank you for sharing with us. I hope that the spirit of your menorah lights the way for more of us! Reply

Michal Evenari Passau, Germany November 29, 2010

Bad Jew... go to the showers Dear Sara Esther, I very much "hitragashti"
about that Japanese girl.
I would have hit her in the face on the spot.
I know, this would have been everything else than holy, nevertheless. I think, it has to do with my background. I grew up as Non Jew
in Germany. An then married an Israel born Jew. He too, answered on things like that
in an agressive way. In the end, they all were quiet. "I am an Israeli", he said to them.
I am not a Jew, you can trample about. Times changed. - Even now, as I am a widow, I am not afraid to fight. Even when they start with the bible, they don't know I know our Tnach and the New Testament as well. Mostly they go away speechless and head down. Why should we allow them? I very much like Joshua, Moses' friend. He had to fight too. "Chazak ve'ematz" I love the word: "When somebody wants to kill you, get up earlier."
I am so proud being Jewish. It goes together very well, to live an observant life
and not allowing a Non Jew, to speak bad about us..- Reply

Rob W. Pittsburgh, PA, USA October 25, 2010

Response to Pandora Unforgivable? I beg G-d for forgiveness for all sorts of stupid things which I have done whenever I say Tachnun, and when I fast on Yom Kippur. Are we not also commanded to forgive? It's not always easy to forgive, especially when the damage is great and / or the offender expresses no regret. However, there's a world of difference between a deadly assault, and a tasteless joke. To refuse to forgive a few worlds, especially when the offender neither intended any real harm nor actually assaulted anyone, sounds pretty petty to me.

You think that people like me are terrible to try to put these things into perspective. Fair enough, but I would suggest you reexamine your own moral inventory when you are so stubbornly unforgiving and equate crude jokes with actual hate and murder.

I don't know Jen, but I do know Brian, and I know me. It sounds presumptuous to me that anyone would think they know more about what kind of person he truly is than I do. Reply

Pandora October 18, 2010

Black humor It is really so offensive that many posters have tried to excuse this horrible remark as a joke. It's no joke to be killed by nerve gas. It's ABSOLUTELY NOT OK and it is also totally UNFORGIVABLE to say what she said. STOP trying to make it out to be OK. Unless you think it's OK to murder Jews. In that case, just don't post here at all. YUK on all those who tried to make it OK. It's not "charitable" and it's not "caring". And stop also, those who say the victim was "projecting" her own bad self-image. That fails to excuse Jen. May a turnip grow in her stomach. Oh, just kidding.
Not funny, is it? Reply

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