Making Light: OMGs! Cultural Appropriation!

Making Light: OMGs! Cultural Appropriation! March 26, 2013

The author making charoset
My shirt says “51% Good Witch 49% Bad Witch: Don’t push it!”

I’ve been celebrating Passover for fourteen years now and I’ve been a Pagan for… (does math) almost sixteen years. I’ve written about it before, but I wanted to poke at this topic again in a different context, namely the idea of cultural appropriation as it relates to blending Jewish and Hellenic practice.

At first, I was supporting and participating in that thing my friend Sophia does. She has her own reasons for hosting, I have my reasons for going every year, and the thirty or so Pagans that show up have their own reasons for going. Much of that I’ve already covered. Pesach has become an integral part of our local community practice, but does that mean we are a bunch of cultural appropriators who appropriate all willy-nilly? Deep down, in the sub-cockles of my heart, I really don’t think so. Here’s why:

I’m no more a Jew than I am a Greek.

If I were to grow my hair long again, start wearing it in a braid, put on some feathers, and talk of the Great Spirit, an uninformed person might point the “cultural appropriation” finger at me and sneer. But that’s exactly what my Uncle E has done. He’s celebrating a part of our heritage that was, even when he was a young man, looked upon as filthy and savage. I’m already planning to start the Cherokee language course offered by the Cherokee Nation with my sister Stonetoad. We used to go to pow-wows when we were kids and we’d get a lot of stares because my little sister looks like we snatched her off the reservation. My mom and I look more European. Anyhow, that’s a little piece of my heritage and now that you are informed, you can knowingly nod and say “how wonderful she is reclaiming her heritage” rather than scoff at an imagined offense to indigenous peoples.

If I were to tell you that I worship the Theoi of Hellas, that my guiding principles were arête and humility, and that I’ve made a peplos to wear on special occasions, the average Pagan would nod and say, “I see that you worship the Greek gods. I’ve heard of them one time before. Good onya!” Not a single Pagan would blink twice at this and would gladly attend rituals to honor those gods. There’s usually wine and often food, which generally makes for happy Pagans. But you would have to really dig to find any Greek ancestry and, given my family history, it would be quite a long shot. The gods of Hellas are the gods of my heart and soul, not of my genetics and not a single Pagan has ever questioned that.

And now, if I were to tell you that I also celebrate Chanukah, Passover, Tu B’Shvat, and other Jewish holidays because they are deeply meaningful to me, you might ask, “Were you raised Jewish?” It’s the nose– and probably the headscarf, too. Toss me into a synagogue and no one would notice. But the answer is “No.” I was not raised Jewish; not at all. I grew up in East Tennessee and at that time, I’d heard of Jews, often not in flattering terms given that the source was usually an Evangelical sort of Protestant, but I’d never met one until I went off to college and became a Pagan. My brother converted and married a Jew maybe ten-ish years ago, but Judaism was never a part of my heritage or experience. It rather surprises my brother’s in-laws, in fact, that I’m familiar with Jewish foodways and customs– which I picked up from being Pagan.

Yeah, I know, right?

So, before you lift the “cultural appropriation” finger at me and shame my annual matzoh habit, I want to ask: how is the incorporation of Jewish practice any different than worshiping the gods of Olympos? It really isn’t. I’ve done about an equal-ish amount of research into both with a slight bias toward Hellenism and I’ve poked the divine woobie about it and have got nothing more than a shrug and a “whatever makes you happy.” And it does make me happy. It makes me inordinately happy. Religion should make you happy. If it doesn’t make you happy, you’re doing something wrong.

Why is it, then, that this inclusion makes my fellow Pagans give me the “qua?” face? It could be that there’s this commandment that says “Thou shalt have no gods all up in my business,” as Alyiah bat Stam so aptly put it. I’m not Jewish, I never have been, and I don’t plan to be, but I’m still going to light the candles and make the best charoset in Rutherford County every year*. My co-practitioners think of these things differently, but I’m content to be a righteous gentile. A British lesbian Trekkie Jewish friend of mine once referred to me as such and I’m happy with that. Those commandments, those mitzvot, and all the things in the Torah are not directed at me. I have no obligation to follow anything in that book, but I’ve chosen to include some of them after serious research, deliberation, and meditation, just as I have done with the worship of the Greek gods. The same amount of respect and reverence is there, the same consideration of the culture and history of the people behind the practice, and the same love of the divine motivates me.

There is amongst Hellenic reconstructionists, a tendency to snub or even attack those who blend “non-Hellenic” practices with Hellenism. This has been a source of irritation for me for years. Historically, there was cross-mojonation with surrounding cultures, so why that should be so discouraged now kind of baffles me. I’m a polytheist; inclusion of gods and practices from cultures outside of Classical Greece is not a problem. It’s practically required. Theologically, it’s no more problematic to include the Norse pantheon for me than Hashem. I can go to a blöt as easily as I can go to a Passover Seder.

Our group name is Baruch Arête, honoring our blending of Hellenic and Jewish practice. I am unapologetic and will continue doing what I’m doing without worrying what people think of me as I once did. The way in which I choose to interact with the divine is between me and the divine, which is big and intricate enough to be inclusive of all concepts we puny mortals could come up with. The difference between the respectful adoption of practices and the naughty sort of cultural appropriation is the degree of reverence and understanding behind the inclusion. When one is called to include a practice outside his or her heritage, it is important to do so armed with knowledge and respect. Those two things will guard us against the sort of mystic crystal revalation dreamcatcher-hanging white people appropriation we all want to avoid.

So, Pesach same’ach, y’all.

The best charoset in all of Rutherford county*

Too many apples
Sourwood honey
Red wine
Welch’s grape juice

With a couple of friends, chop apples finely into a large bowl until you can’t stand it any longer. Chop yea so many walnuts and add to apples. Consider, as you do every year, whether or not you should put raisins in. Decide not to. Add some honey, making sure to “accidentally” get some on your fingers so you can lick it off. Add cinnamon and nutmeg– no, not that much nutmeg; a little less than that. Blend well. Separate some amount of this into a smaller bowl for your non wine-drinking friends. To this smaller amount, add some grape juice and stir. Set aside. To the big bowl, add wine. Add a little more. Okay, stop! Not too much. Add some wine to the cook, if desired.

Serves a great horde with enough leftovers for Hillel sandwiches for breakfast the next morning.

*There are literally maybe half a dozen Jews in the whole county. I’m not even exaggerating. All the synagogues are in West Nashville and I assume that’s where all the Jews are, more or less. I’ve never had a charoset-off, but my chances are pretty good.

Making Light is an occasional column by Hellenic polytheist Sunweaver. Follow it via RSS or e-mail!

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