My Friends Taught Me How to Be Jewish

I never knew my Jewish dad, but a group of friends (and a dog menorah) led me on a journey of self-discovery.

On a chilly December afternoon back in 2019, I met with a few members of my writers group in the West Village to have an informal lunch and to workshop some of our writing before the holidays. Once we finished our meal, our group walked around and ended up in a Jonathan Adler store. After reluctantly passing on buying the “Puppy Uppers” jar for my brand new rescue pup, my eyes landed on something else: a dog menorah. It was a dachshund shape, with clean and crisp lines, unlike anything I’d ever seen before. Sharon, one of the writers group members, came over to admire the menorah. “You have to get it,” she said. Everyone else agreed.

“You’re Jewish,” she said. “Have you ever celebrated Hanukkah?”

Her wholly well-intentioned question made me feel wildly uncomfortable.

First, I don’t think anyone had ever referred to me as Jewish until that moment. Second, at that point in my life I didn’t consider myself Jewish. I felt like I’d come across as a fraud if I claimed to be. I once told an Israeli acquaintance my father’s first name, and he told me I had pronounced it wrong. I’m an overthinker, and the interaction sent me spiraling. If I couldn’t even pronounce my father’s first name correctly, what if I had been pronouncing my own last name wrong my entire life? Or my first name? How do I even say my name? Does anyone really know? Did I know anything about anything? That singular embarrassment was enough to keep future conversations about my Jewish heritage short, sweet or if possible, nonexistent.

My parents were never married. I had only met my Israeli dad once when I was seven years old, and telling people this usually makes them all, no matter how progressive, clutch their metaphorical pearls. I was raised in Hawaii surrounded by a diverse, mixed Asian and other population by my Japanese side of the family and had no connection to my Israeli family or Jewish heritage. In fact I rarely thought about my Jewish side because when I was growing up, we didn’t have ways to search for people on the internet or social media like we do now. There was one small photo in my home, sepia with sun and age, of my father holding me as a baby. This is the only photo I can remember of the two of us existing together in the same moment, and even that photo of me felt like a distant part of a dream, a fragment of my imagination. It was hard to identify with a part of me that came from a person who was 8,652 miles away, with no visual cues or even a simple current photo to help us connect.

But Sharon’s simple question seemed like a sincere invitation. She didn’t need proof of my 23andMe results, didn’t say I couldn’t be Jewish because my mom isn’t and didn’t tell me how to pronounce my dad’s name. Still she had me existentially stumped, sweating in the spotlight while all the other members of the writers group stared at me during this seemingly innocuous yet utmost critical moment in my relationship with my identity…

…in a Jonathan Adler store.

“No, I don’t know how to be Jewish,” I finally said. “But I’d love to learn.”

I took the dog menorah home and I couldn’t stop taking pictures of it. I had no idea self-discovery could be so cute. Here I had been considering therapy to unpack my Jewish identity, or lack thereof — what a pedestrian solution. I could now tell people that a Jonathan Adler dog menorah, for the reasonable price of at least 27 therapy session co-pays, was the true key to unlocking my Jewish identity.

Sharon and I FaceTimed each other every night for the rest of Hanukkah. We lit candles — me with my dog menorah (with my real dog, Ted in the background), and her in her living room on her couch. We read and sang the Hanukkah prayers with the help of her “coursework.” The great thing about Sharon is that she’s a Capricorn and so she was extremely organized and methodical in the way she structured my “How to Be Jewish 101” course (that’s not what she called it, it’s what I am calling it). She sent over emails with historical facts, the prayers, reform Jewish synagogues and links to The Maccabeats and Adam Sandler YouTube clips which I found to be a well-rounded approach to the course.

That year, Hanukkah ended on Dec. 30 and Sharon hosted a Hanukkah get-together in her Harlem apartment. This group of people at my first Hanukkah celebration were from all types of backgrounds: Jewish American, Black American and mixed-race. It was nice to exist in a room as a cohesive part of a diverse party group, instead of having that feeling of ‘one-of-these-things-is-not-like-the-other’ — and that thing is you. The night’s events were structured and pre-planned to a tee which I loved because I live for structure. We went around the room and shared what we were most thankful for. I consider that public speaking, which I’m deathly afraid of. The good news is I didn’t publically die, or publically sob from verbally acknowledging my feelings — so that was a solid win. The best part was that we were all instructed to bring our menorahs, and I couldn’t wait to show off mine.

We lit them all, at least 10 menorahs simultaneously. As a Sagittarius, a fire sign obsessed with watching flames, it was the perfect way to end my very first Hanukkah.

My Jewish self-discovery, with continued guidance from Sharon and other friends, has been nothing but a lovely, pleasant pressure-free process. I spent a lot of my life wondering if it was possible for someone like me to connect with religion and identity. I wasn’t taught my Judaism in the traditional ways, by my family or an integrated community. But learning from my friends instead turned out to be the way I was meant to embark on this path.

To anyone else on a similar journey — I wish you light, levity, meaningful friendships and a perfect menorah. Who knows? Maybe your journey will start in a Jonathan Adler store, too.

Gilani Sumida-Moiseff

Gilani Sumida-Moiseff (she/her) currently lives in New York City and works in union film and television. She is originally from Honolulu, Hawaii and is half-Japanese, half-Israeli. She enjoys cooking, coffee, podcasts and spending time with Ted, her rescue pup. Her alma maters are Carnegie Mellon and NYU Tisch School of the Arts.

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