According to Talmudic sources, the spiritual goal of Hanukkah is pirsumei nisa: publicizing the miracle of the oil. Lighting the Hanukkah menorah and placing the burning candles in a prominent place—such as in an outer doorway or a window facing a public thoroughfare—is central to this ritual. LUNAR: The Jewish Asian Film Project aims to do something similar. Its organizers hope to offer Asian Jews a lamp in the darkness by which to see one another, and to share that light with their broader communities via the internet.
“I think the story of Hanukkah is very much a story of surviving a scarcity and what a miracle that is,” says LUNAR cofounder Jenni Rudolph. ”And a lot of what we’ve been unpacking in LUNAR is the feeling that as Asian American Jews, we’ve had to shrink our needs. But now we want to invert that and be honest with our needs as people, as a community.”
LUNAR launched earlier this year, when cofounders Rudolph and Gen Slosberg connected online about their shared experiences as young Asian Jews. Through social media and other networks, they built a “cast” of 23 mostly Millennial and Gen-Z Asian Jews, and filmed a series of conversations about topics ranging from media representation to Passover. The first episode of LUNAR, “The Taste of Connection,” debuted back in February. The series finale will go live on December 4 at a Hanukkah party taking place both online and live in New York City, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
“When we started LUNAR, there was not really that much out there for Asian American Jews,” says Rudolph. ”A lot of what we found was really more talking about the cultural fusion of the Jewish tradition of going to Chinese restaurants on Christmas or marriage between Jewish people and Asian-American people, but not so much living the intersection of being both Jewish and Asian American as a person.”
Slosberg and Rudolph each have one Jewish parent and one non-Jewish Chinese parent. Slosberg is from Guangzhou, China but spent her teenage years in Irvine, California, and Rudolph was raised in nearby in Huntington Beach, a town with a significant white supremacist presence. While their backgrounds were different, they both felt a need for a space where Asian Jews from a variety of backgrounds could connect with one another.
Like the overall population of the United States, rising numbers of Jewish Americans identify as non-white, with younger Jews especially likely to live in households in which at least one adult is either non-white or multiracial. About 42 percent of married Jews have a non-Jewish spouse. Data specifically about Asian Jews are scarce, but knowledge is growing. Research by married sociologists Helen Kim and Noah Leavitt indicates that the children of intermarried Asian and Jewish couples are usually likely to identify proudly with their Jewish side and consider themselves Jews. (Though, of course, many Asian Jews are not the children of intermarriage: Some Asian Jews are adoptees, converts, or the latest generation in a long ancestral line.)
When hate crimes against Asian Americans soared in the first quarter of this year, Rabbi Mira Rivera of Romemu in New York City found very little support or understanding among her Jewish colleagues. “The attacks were happening, and it really wasn’t raising temperatures,” remembers Rivera, the first Filipina-American Rabbi to be ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary and Rabbinic Mentor at Ammud: The Jews of Color Torah Academy. “There were even questions like, ‘I thought we just were supporting Black and brown communities—we have to support Asian Jews now? Really? Do we have to?’” In response to the attacks and the sparse interest from co-religionists, Rivera describes a spontaneous effort by Asian Jews in the United States and Canada to organize Zoom meetings and get to know each other. That is how she first came in contact with LUNAR. “The impact of hearing our voices in this multimedia storytelling that LUNAR pioneered really had a seismic effect on our community,” she says. “LUNAR started giving voice and images of our people [Asian Jews]. In many ways, that was really a light in the chaos.”
Although matters came to a head during the recent wave of anti-Asian attacks, LUNAR’s organizers say that life at the intersection of Jewish, Asian and American culture can entail many subtler challenges. “It’s a really horrible feeling when you go wanting to seek out Jewish community and you leave feeling like an outsider,” says LUNAR organizer Maryam Chishti, whose mother is Jewish and whose father is Muslim. “In some contexts it’ll feel like a ‘not real’ Jewish upbringing, and that’s something I struggle with.”
“There are so many ways in which somebody can feel othered when they walk into a space,” says cofounder Rudolph. “I would love a world in which any Asian-American Jew can walk into their synagogue and not be asked, ‘Oh, why are you here?’ Or, ‘Who are you here with?’”
Rudolph adds that the alienation extends to other parts of Jewish life. “I feel like in a lot of Jewish humor and American-Jewish culture, we laugh about things like Jewish hair and Jewish noses and other things that can be very Ashkenormative or at least very exclusive of Jews of color,” says Rudolph. “At the same time, I also recognize that a lot of the exclusion and, at times, racism that I have felt from some white Jews is rooted in self defense and centuries of persecution and having to be careful who you let into the group. There’s a long way to go, but I’m confident that we can get there because I understand the history that has led to this.”
While LUNAR is primarily meant to provide a space for Asian Jews to find community, Rudolph hopes the project will also help push American Jewish culture at large to acknowledge, accept and celebrate the Asians in their midst. “When you really find that belonging and you really find that home, it can be so powerful and so warm and connecting,” says Rudolph. “I want that feeling for everybody. And I think a big piece of unlocking that is first making ourselves visible, which is the step I think we’re conquering right now.”
Rudolph says that the experience of non-normative Jews can be additive. Rivera feels similarly, noting a common Asian Jewish practice of peeling fresh fruit to pair with latkes rather than buying pre-made applesauce. “There’s something about our elders making these preparations by hand that is so Asian. I cite this whole idea of peeling fruit as an offering of tikkun, an offering of correction, or renewal. For us, I remember even guava was used, or quince. These really are fruits from the old country. These are practices that now go into Jewish life.”
Rivera mentions that some Asian Jews enjoy sriracha or chutney with their latkes, rather than sour cream. “When we do Hanukkah, it’s always sort of like an amalgamation of our different customs. Whatever that particular family really loved growing up—it could be totally, totally Ashkenazi. Or, making buñuelos instead of donuts—it’s another kind of fried thing made out of flour that has a Sephardi origin. There’s this open invitation to discover what was forgotten without it being inauthentic or appropriating it.”
Organizer Maryam Chishti says that after the Season two finale, LUNAR’s focus will shift from its online video project to live events and community building. “Doing these events and gatherings has been so moving. They’ve helped me, and I know a lot of people, process and unpack and reflect on our upbringing,” said Chishti. “There’s just been something really, really special about being able to gather with Asian Jews and talk about it. And I’ve had so many reflections and awakenings and I leave feeling very, very blessed.”
It is these blessings that LUNAR will celebrate together on December 4.
“What keeps me in awe and wonder is that with the trauma and the way doors have been shut and the scar tissue that has developed among Asian Jews, it would be perfectly logical for somebody to just say, ‘Oh, I’m moving on with my life,’” says Rivera, who will preside over the New York gathering. “But somehow—and this is the mystery of the season for me—people come, and they say, ‘Let me try again. Let me discover with you, even with the doubt upon doubt, safek sefeika, to come and be open. That, to me, is nothing short of a miracle.
Top photo: LUNAR filmmaker Jared Chiang-Zeizel, now 34, lights a Hanukkah menorah with his brother in his hometown of Newtown, Massachusetts. He remembers: “When I was in my early 20s, I had this realization that I had never been in a group of people where there wasn’t either something racist against Asians said, or something anti-Semitic. With Asian friends, sometimes the Jewish people in my town were used as a scapegoat for problems. Or, I’d be with Jewish friends and we might be ordering Chinese food and someone would just say their order, but with a [fake Chinese] accent or pulling their eyes to the side…A safe space for Jews should be safe for all Jews.”