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How New York Media Grinches Taught Me the True Meaning of Chanukah

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You can learn some really fascinating things when interviewing celebrities, comedians and New York media types about their Judaism. Holy Dazed, our series that combines these interviews into humorous vignettes, was just supposed to be funny, but it ended up revealing a whole new idea of Jewishness that undermines so many of the negative assumptions coming out of the the big leadership in the Jewish world.

Readers of Page Six might have been surprised to find out that George Clooney would throw pies at good friend Richard Kind for not allowing him to have a Christmas tree when they were rooming together, but as someone who's spent nearly twenty years in yeshivas and most of my adult life reporting on the Jewish world, I was far more astonished that this Hollywood actor cared that much about preserving his Jewish heritage.

Everything that billionaire philanthropists and hundred-million-dollar initiatives are telling the Jewish world is that most of the people we're interviewing are a lost cause. You'd expect that New York media types and comedians would be the first to express cynicism about ancient Jewish traditions -- and it's the assumption that kids today ("kids" being anyone under 45 in Jewish organizational lingo) don't want any part of those traditions that is leading to massive investments in new programs that try to put a new spin on being Jewish -- no matter how desperate or different these efforts may seem.

But maybe Judaism's doing OK, after all, and maybe these people are the proof of it.

The Week Contributing Editor Daniel Radosh, an atheist, isn't supposed to care about Jewish rituals -- but it turns out he's actually quite eager to light the menorah properly. And something as ancient (and ancient-sounding) as the Yom Kippur incantation of Kol Nidrei is supposed to be one of the things that Jewish marketers avoid mentioning when trying to keep Jews in the fold, but its haunting sound and message of annual reclamation actually sits very firmly in the heart and mind of even former New York Magazine Senior Editor and former Gawker blogger Jesse Oxfeld. It's astonishing that comedian Judy Gold risks getting kicked out of hotels while on the road because she insists on lighting her menorah in the window, where everyone can see it. And who would've guessed that the Huffington Post's own Rachel Sklar calls her mom during the nights of Chanukah to sing the blessings over the candles together, and regards Judith as "a huge feminist hero?"

It turns out, when you pierce the ironic veneers, that these people who are essentially paid to be cynics actually do cherish their Jewish identities, their Jewish families, and their Jewish traditions.

There's a lesson in all of this for those pulling the strings and shifting the billions of dollars invested in reviving a supposedly-foundering American Jewish community: it's thriving without you, and occasionally despite you.

If you read Jewish newspapers, studies and reports, you'll be left with no room but to assume that these are accidental successes. But maybe that's the point: that as much as a top-down leadership might be trying to engineer a Judaism that can somehow stop the bleeding in the few variables they're able to track in their census-like National Jewish Population Survey, there's actually something very real and very true going on entirely outside of the traditional institutions, and it's being ignored by those institutions.

Because after the first, and the second, and the three-dozenth interview kept producing these astonishing insights into a Jewish heartbeat that's far louder than the big Jewish leadership would lead you to believe, it became increasingly clear to me that the accusation of who's atrophying Judaism could easily point in the other direction.

Whether it's a famous face like Richard Kind's or a famous blogging wit like Rachel Sklar's, the organized Jewish community is missing something wonderful and precious by creating lists of reasons why various people should be excluded, instead of creating new ways for them to feel welcome as members of the community.

Because despite the fact that these people are bright and funny and fascinating and love being Jewish, so many of them have the distinct feeling that Judaism doesn't want them, and thus when contacted by something called "The Jewish Channel," they're eager, but cautious, to participate. By far, the majority of media inquiries we send out to these prominent actors, musicians, media types and comedians come back to us with a simple message: "I'd love to participate, but you should know I'm not Jewish enough because..." And you can fill in the blank, which basically tells you how many times over the course of their lives they've had some door closed on them because some institution or congregation just didn't want them, or that the message of what Judaism is was made too daunting or intimidating for someone who didn't fit a very specific definition.

When Richard Kind was getting miked up for his interview, he tried to apologize for how little he thought he'd be able to contribute. When Jezebel editor Jessica Grose responded, she warned, "I haven't stepped foot in a temple since 1996." Gay Jewish R&B star Ari Gold made sure we knew that the Jewish high school he attended wouldn't run notices about his achievements in the alumni newsletter.

And so on and so forth, the ostensible "excuses" for why we might not want to interview them continue to stack up. But these excuses, it seems, should really be seen as accusations pointing toward the myriad institutions that have turned these valuable community members away, or intimidated them into staying away by failing to project a message of openness and non-discrimination.

Far from being examples of the downfall of the religion, in need of jazzy marketing and cooler definitions of what it means to be Jewish, they are actually ambassadors of Jewish traditions, values and ideas. Like a religious version of Glenn Reynolds' Army of Davids, they're blazing their own path, but using the same traditions they've always known. The message seems to be that it's not Judaism that needs to change for them to get involved, it's Jewish people who need to get better at following Abraham's examples of being welcoming to all and seeing righteousness in others.

I'm kind of proud to be at a different sort of Jewish institution, one that casts the widest net and says to all that the sandbox is plenty big enough for everyone to play. I'm now very familiar with this distinct glow that can be found in someone's face when they realize they're welcome in part of a community they cherish, but that they assumed had long since abandoned them.

And we'll keep interviewing them on Holy Dazed, where, thanks to our more than 20,000 subscribers, they're becoming Jewish household names -- no matter how ironic they think that is.