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Hanukkah: Finding My Inner Light as a Jew

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It's a bit tricky to borrow the images of a holiday whose story has come to mean an exclusivity that is more and more remote from real personal meaning. At the same time, the image of lights resembling both miracles and hope remain intense on a visceral level.

Recently I experienced two very different artistic presentations which opened me up to the possibilities of inventing new ways of thinking, feeling, and moving. They also forced me to acknowledge the way we can feel pulled by those poignant emotions that we often force to lie dormant and unrecognized.

A few weeks ago I saw the Garth Fagan Dance Troupe perform at the Joyce Theatre in Manhattan. Their buoyant exuberance, mixed with softness and dignity rendered the audience privileged to share in the wonder of watching one literally leap into another's arms and figuratively into the unknown possibilities of new steps and feeling. With this work, Garth Fagan, a wise and warm choreographer who is also famous for his choreography of the Broadway hit show "The Lion King," expressed the dynamic potential that can occur when there is a collision between forces, such as that of the modern and the classical dance forms. He has said that he particularly loves the notion of "movement invention," adding, "When I see a movement in my mind's eye, and it isn't in the world, it's for me to invent it, as I still have criteria to measure the work of my intuition." In other words, although the freedom is an ideal, it cannot be without discipline.

For me, Fagan's words are beautiful since I've been considering inventing new therapies and sustainable supports for human beings who need help to practice the movements and stillness of emotions in ways not often seen in a field that is dedicated to mental and emotional health. The dynamism of collision, a friction that can lead to something thrilling and new, seems like something magical and, for sure, hopeful.

As a counterpoint to the hope engendered by that light, there coexists the reservoir of memory that reverberates in aspects of how we are both pulled towards and repelled by the parts of our identities that we often deny.

As a secular Jew who has in fact written against the competitive nature of battling for who has suffered most in history, I become more aware that my social conscience is mixed-in with its own denial of an identification with something that doesn't go away despite my attempt at its ejection. This irrevocable connection of me and many others with our Jewish sides and centers came home to me while in Paris at an exhibition at the Museum of Jewish Art and History in the Marais District. It happened while seeing -- and feeling -- the paintings and the stories of one Felix Nussbaum.

One doesn't often find people in museums looking at paintings while crying or covering their eyes to hide their tears. And while this was the case with the Nussbaum exhibit, it was not because the art was maudlin or sentimentally exploitative. Conversely, these were works by a superbly talented artist who admits to being distant from his Jewish roots and from adherence to conformity in general. He was deep, whimsical, supported by his family in his artistic choices. But the Holocaust rendered the Jewish part of him, the racial aspect of his Jewish bloodline and his name, as paramount.

And so he was infused with the obligatory definition of himself as a person in hiding, in exile, and ultimately imprisoned and killed at Auschwitz; he was forty.

Before he had been caught by the Nazis his works were eerie premonitions and representations of what he imagined and perhaps had been hearing through the grapevine. It had been his expressed wish that his art be saved, and it was, indeed, rediscovered 70's. Now the world has a tribute to his life and times, to his talents and his wandering into new territories only to be frozen by a blood line.

So this man, of whom I had never heard before, in his own way, also transformed my way of seeing and as such my life.

As I wandered through the museum looking at his works, I felt in my gut something I had personally avoided or had trouble accepting as a result of living in our climate of political correctness (of which I too have played a part). Nussbaum's worked made me realize in a very real way why I, no matter how I might say that all genocides are equal in importance, do not feel that way in fact. And that is because, after all, even in the movie The Godfather, Michael knows and admits that everything is personal. This is not to say that our personal reactions are not worthy of examination or that if we hear the stories of actual human beings (instead of generalities), we are incapable of such a personal identification. But, I realized that I -- as a white Jewish woman in a professional role who also feels more assimilated than otherwise in my own society -- identify more with what happened in the Holocaust than with genocides elsewhere before or since.

Diversity, ecology -- these are the buzz words of our times. But we rarely take the time to consider the diversity within ourselves as individuals, the ambivalence, and the multiple sets of pulls that are within us and deserve recognition. Sure, we may love respecting our environment, but part of that is within us. We may want and yearn to fly free, but if we deny the parts of life which have grounded us and continue to do so, our flight is only a running away with little to make for a substantive future.

So it's Hanukkah, and admittedly I tried to introduce the holiday to my kids as I loved my Judaism, that of my youth. But when my daughter at age four came out of a children's Hanukkah festival saying, "Mommy there was an army and God was on its side," I knew it couldn't work. But even though "the religion" and its exclusivity don't work for me, I can never be rid of my sensibilities as a Jew. Secular yes, but to be one who is self-hating or denying of authentic parts of me would be to deny real ecology which has to include the diversity, not only outside, but inside of us as well.