Let’s put aside what she should or shouldn’t wear and take a moment to think about why you are worried about this. A few questions: What is your intention in bringing your non-Jewish woman friend to the family celebration of Hanukah? Are you interested in sharing the culture in which you were nurtured with her? Are you looking to exhibit your current life to your cousins, aunts and uncles? Are you focused on how she will feel inside the family gathering or are you really seeking to experience your family through the eyes of an outsider? Are there perhaps family members whom you wish to jostle and provoke by bringing her to the party?
You characterize yourself as “the bad Jew” inside your family. It sounds like a role you’ve chosen or maybe one that’s been foisted upon you, the edgy boundary tester, the so-called “wicked son” who dares to ask his parents, “What does all this mean to you? Why do you perpetuate these old customs—candles, latkes, dreidels and Maoz Tsur? Why does it matter?” In my judgment the so-called bad Jew may sometimes inspire the family to rethink and renew its commitments. (Unless of course the family wishes to flee the big questions.)
Along these lines, consider the possibility that Hanukkah may actually be an eight day seminar that explores what we mean by “home.” For on Hanukkah Jews remember their ancestors in 2nd century (BCE) Judea who sought to make themselves at home in the global culture of their time and they also remember that the Maccabees went to war to oppose that acculturation. Home for the Maccabees could only be found through loyalty to the separatist norms and customs of our ancestors.
Maybe this is what you wish to explore this year: How to create or find a Jewish home as a “bad Jew” who has a girlfriend not of the tribe and who dresses funky. Do you think of a Jewish home as a sanctuary from the world, a place to protect? Or can it be a center where you learn to inhabit the world in all its complexity? Think about this before you consider what to say to your girlfriend. Happy Hanukkah!
James Ponet is the Howard M. Holtzmann Jewish Chaplain Emeritus at Yale where he also is a visiting lecturer at the Law School. Fortunately he has been married over 40 years to Elana Ponet with whom he has four children and six grandchildren.