Like many others, I have lost almost all connection to Judaism since my family was forced to part from their religion, their traditions, almost their entire identity during the atrocities of the Holocaust. Whilst I have little knowledge of the intricacies of my family’s religious history, I do know that at some point, not too many generations ago, they were involved in Jewish practices. Whether they were devout Jews, or simply celebrated the main festivals, or whether they participated in Jewish culture at all, I have no idea. But since there is even a spark of that identity running through the veins of all those whom I have called my family for nearly 18 years, I have spent many years trying to put together some pieces, just to gain a shred of understanding of what it means to be Jewish, and perhaps how my ancestors may have lived.
Growing up, I was fascinated with Holocaust literature, reading many memoirs and semi-fictional pieces detailing the oppression of the mid 20th Century; while when other children were asked about their favorite book they might have said Harry Potter, I would have replied with The Diary of Anne Frank or The Book Thief. I have studied the history of the Holocaust, visited memorials like the Raoul Wallenberg memorial in Budapest or the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, walked through every ‘street’ of Sachsenhausen concentration camp, feeling the pain of all those who were persecuted and killed right into the depth of my bones. I have gone to synagogues, engaged in religious conversations after studying the Bible, connected to Jewish culture by visiting Jewish bakeries, delis, restaurants. And yet, despite all these attempts of rekindling an identity I was never really introduced to, I was still left with a feeling of distance, like an outsider onlooking at all these things, never actually bridging the gap between curiosity and real involvement.
Once coming to Pearson, I thought that I would never have the time to do the same research as I had done before. What Jewish memorials or museums could I possibly visit in Canada, especially in a time of a pandemic? When would I ever have time to read more Holocaust literature, when I barely had the time to stay on top of my IB reading list? I could not have been more wrong. The evening, I saw the message pop up on my phone inviting people to celebrate the first night of Hanukkah revolutionized the way I looked at the way I tried to reconnect with my heritage. Yes, I had always tried to make an effort in research and whatnot, but I had never been directly involved in a ‘family’, actively celebrating Jewishness. Surrounded by some of the other Jewish people on campus that evening, I felt a sense of warmth radiating toward me. The singing of the Hanukkah prayers, the lighting of the candle, the sharing of the Hanukkah story, the sound of the dreidels, and laughter. It was something I had never been able to experience before, my own family having as little connection to Judaism as myself. But that evening, while it wasn’t my blood-related family, I found a new sort of family. Other teenagers, just like me, who introduced me to the festivities of Hanukkah, adopted me into their traditions, not caring that I had no prior memory of how Hanukkah should be.
Now, as we approach the end of November and the start of Hanukkah, I invite you all to reflect on your history. Your identity. While Hanukkah is a Jewish celebration many Jews around the world celebrate, it is not the only festival or commemorative day happening this time of year. If you have ever felt a desire, a call, to reconnect with your heritage, now is your opportunity. Pearson is the perfect place to find others with who you might share a past. The world is full of people who might be just like you. Reach for those opportunities, rekindle a flame that may have been lost from your identity. Hanukkah is a festival of light – perhaps it is even a light calling you to discover new things about yourself.