Rappahannock Review Nonfiction Editors: At the end of “The Menorah in the Window,” you appear to defy expectations surrounding your religious and cultural identity. What’s your philosophy on forming one’s own identity on the basis of heritage or cultural history?

Hope Houston: I spent my childhood very envious of those who grew up in more traditionally Jewish communities and got to go to Hebrew school, have Bat Mitzvahs, and regularly attend synagogue. It made me feel pretty deficient, as I discuss in the piece, but what I didn’t realize then as a kid was that I was actually having a pretty quintessential American Jewish experience.

As Jews have immigrated and assimilated into the wider WASP culture of America, many of us have lost the ability to speak Yiddish, read Hebrew, and know prayers and rituals by heart. For many of us, being an American Jew is a secular experience because of the bigotry and pressures to homogenize our grandparents and great grandparents faced. Did you know that the narrative of Jewish immigrants having their names forcibly changed at Ellis Island is largely untrue? In her book, People Love Dead Jews, Dara Horn discusses how there actually isn’t a ton of evidence for this, and that most name changes were actually done voluntarily by Jewish immigrants themselves. To secure jobs and livelihoods and combat discrimination, Jews often changed their names to more easily assimilate. In a culture where you are the Other, you are forced to hide, if not erase, who you are.

As I’ve aged, I see my mother’s hiding of the menorah with a very different set of eyes. While I empathize deeply with her and my grandparents, I also see the political power in going against this grain, in boldly proclaiming who you are, in being unapologetically the Other. Still, with the deaths of my mother and grandparents, my Jewish identity has taken new meaning—keeping their customs alive isn’t merely an academic pursuit to keep Jewish identity alive but a very heartfelt need to keep them alive in me. There is great personal and political empowerment that comes with reclaiming your heritage and Otherness. You don’t need to pass a test or fit a particular mold to prove your identity. In fact, not being able to do those things is often a hallmark of a marginalized identity. You need only realize you are the writer of your own narrative and claim it.

RR: We like how the piece was separated into key moments in your life. How did you choose which moments to include?

HH: I think when non-marginalized individuals tend to think of bigotry, they often think in extremes: the Holocaust, the KKK, shootings at synagogues or historically Black churches, fascist idealogues like Richard Spencer. In my piece, I wanted to focus on quieter, more innocuous examples of marginalization I’ve faced through the years. I wanted to make a point that, while inappropriate comments sometimes came from adults, a lot of what I faced came from other children, parroting what they heard from their parents, family friends, and church communities. There is something particularly heinous to me about children, who often exist in this sort of silo of innocence, being perpetrators of micro- and macro-aggressions in these otherwise average life experiences, like language arts class and driveway basketball.

Moreover, it is these innocuous examples of bigotry that lay the groundwork for opportunistic idealogues like Richard Spencer. It is these quieter moments that create a permissive culture surrounding bigotry. You get told to lighten up, that it is just a joke, or you even hear how the micro-aggressions you face are nothing like the sorts of things your ancestors faced. That was Real Bigotry™. But every joke and every critique of why you don’t attend church all insidiously whisper the same thing—that you don’t belong, that you need to change, that who you are is fundamentally flawed—and once you begin questioning the existence of particular people or identities and opening that existence up for debate, you are dehumanizing them and calling for their demise.

RR: This piece navigates such heavy subject matter. What is your process for tackling something so sensitive?

HH: As a writer, I find it really hard to not gravitate towards these more difficult subjects. I can’t turn the political part of my brain off, and for me, writing is such an important act of witnessing and truth-telling. But it can be pretty mentally exhausting. I think what helps me most is time.

When I first set out to write my heavier pieces, I just let myself pour onto the page. For this piece, my pre-writing was mostly just excavating my mind for every bad memory I could find, haha. Because this is such a traumatic and confessional sort of subject, I treated that first draft as a diary. I wrote a list of scenes with every detail and feeling I could remember. Then, I had to leave it to marinate. I left it for weeks, gave myself some distance, and re-approached it when I was ready to sit with my writing cap on. With time, the raw edge wears off, and I can critique the diary, find the political throughline, and shape my initial entries into an actually readable narrative!

I think writers should be gentle with themselves, give themselves distance when they need it, and find communities where they can share these sorts of pieces for supportive and empathetic feedback.

RR: You mention feeling alienated from your own Jewish identity both by your own lack of experience and, to a degree, by others who’ve participated in those practices longer. What is your opinion on members of a particular cultural group essentially gatekeeping the culture and its practice?

HH: This is an interesting question. I don’t see it so much as gatekeeping but more as self-preservation. I think some marginalized communities, such as Jews, have insular tendencies as a reaction to historical oppression. With your own in-group often comes safety and empathy. As outside pressures and oppressors force one to assimilate and homogenize with the dominant, usually white, Christian culture, marginalized communities lose their own languages; religions; cultural products, such as food and dress; and even their very foundational social and philosophical beliefs, such as matriarchy versus patriarchy or concepts of non-binary genders. Insularity can be an attempt to combat erasure. Yet, this, of course, has its limits. Insularity can sometimes slide into a conquest for purity of heritage and ancestry, which then alienates those of us caught in this middle of dueling cultures, the very product of the historical oppression we were originally trying to combat! At the end of the day, we should strive for community, not hegemony. Our strength lies in recognizing our shared oppression, as marginalized groups and as marginalized people. We should all strive to be the Irish rabbi with two different colored shoes—welcoming, affirming, and loving.

RR: After all that you’ve experienced, do you put your menorah in the window?

HH: Absolutely. I proudly display my menorah in memory of my mother, Hayley, and my grandparents, Bennett and Sondra. May their memories forever be a blessing. And, above all, I display it for myself. Thanks for reading, and happy holidays! To all who celebrate, Chanukah samayach!


Read “The Menorah in the Window” by Hope Houston in Issue 11.1.