Hanukkah: HO HO H'Oy Vey


In a rush of excitement, a good friend approached me last week with a smile. Animated and curious, she asked, “So what are we doing for Hanukkah!? What’s the deal? It’s my first one, so I want to make sure I get this right!” Unable to match her exhilaration and joy, I offered a short, sluggish reply: "Light candles. Eat latkes. Spin a dreidel. I mean, it's ONLY a ‘minor’ Jewish festival. It's not that big of a deal. The Maccabees Revolted against the Seleucid empire (167-160 BCE) and some oil lasted longer than it should have." I shrugged and threw up my hands. But at that moment, a joy ladened face turned listless and deflated. "Okay. That's fine. I guess I was just excited. That's all."

In truth, I still feel uneasy about how intentional I was to downplay Hanukkah; almost to the point of denigrating its ritual significance. After all, here was someone who wasn't Jewish, but enthused about it embracing a facet of Jewish life – wanting to share and celebrate a holiday with her Jewish friend. But why wasn't I? “What's wrong with me? Why am I acting like this?”, I asked myself. I'm a rabbi. I love Judaism. But why am I nervous about sprinkling some "holiday spirit" over Hanukkah? The annual occasion when classmates and teachers ask the token Jewish student if their moms can come to school to fry those “Jewish pancakes” everyone likes so much. 'Tis the Season! Ho Ho H'oy vey…

As soon as we finish the last helping of Thanksgiving turkey, America seems to get giddy over Christmas. And when attempting to share that same zealousness over Hanukkah, I’ve found that I’m hesitant to accept. As if to say, “Don’t lend us any of your jubilant eagerness. Save your it for your month-long ugly sweater parties and inflatable reindeer lawn decorations. Keep your Dancer and Dasher, and we'll take our Maccabeus and Mattathias. We’ll spin our dreidels, open a pair of gifted socks from mom, and eat those fickle, tinfoil half-dollar chocolates." Traditionally, we’ve informed our non-Jewish neighbors simply that Hanukkah isn’t Jewish Christmas. We exclaim to everyone: "Stop making it a big deal. It’s not. It’s fine. We’re fine with this. It's a minor holiday. We light a menorah and go back to our daily lives..."

But why are we hesitant to make something of Hanukkah? Somehow it seems we are overly prudent not to make Hanukkah ostentatious. We’re cautious not to be overelaborate with public decorations. As if to purposefully not compete with “December Palooza.” Because while we’re constantly reminded that Hanukkah is a whopping "eight crazy nights," Christmas is now thirty-some odd days and counting. Well, according to reformJudaism.org:

“Although the practice of lighting the menorah (also called a hanukkiyah) was common throughout much of the 19th century, North American Jews tended to neglect most of the other traditions and practices associated with the holiday. By the 1920s, however, Jews increasingly added gift-giving to their Hanukkah celebrations, prompting some people to refer to Hanukkah as the ‘Jewish Christmas.’ In some ways, the transformation of Hanukkah was linked to the growth of North American Jewry within its unique environment. The elevation of Hanukkah to a major holiday was partly the result of Jews acculturating themselves to a North America that was overwhelmingly Christian in population and symbols.”

“Although Hanukkah had become an important holiday among North American Jews by the 1920s, it would be incorrect to regard it as an imitation of Christmas with an emphasis on the exchange of presents. Rather, North American Jews use this holiday as a celebration of family, reinforcing Jewish identity in a place whose population may be overwhelmingly Christian but in which Jews feel at home. Hanukkah, therefore, is a means for North American Jews to feel a kinship with their neighbors, while simultaneously asserting their Jewish distinctiveness.”

In short, asserting our Jewish distinctiveness is the root of this debate. In other words: “Don’t take our holiday and turn it into something it’s not.” I can clearly visualize the looks of dismay and frustration as my rabbinical colleagues open their “Chrismukkah Party” invitations sent out by well-intentioned neighbors and friends. As proud Jews, a sensitive nerve is struck when hearing Hanukkah referred to as the "Jewish Christmas." Because it’s not! We’re different! And thus, Hanukkah needs to be different. Because to snowball Hanukkah into the existing stream of decadent street parades and panoramic light shows is to forfeit that distinctiveness. We refuse to disown this fragile piece of Jewish identity. The last man standing in our assimilated 21st century Judaism.

Deep down, I feel that Hanukkah should be about anything other than another capitalist marketing pitch. As such, we’ve deliberately made Hanukkah about (1) the refusal to submit to religious intolerance or idolator empires (2) the struggle against assimilation (3) “the fight for Jewish political autonomy and self-determination.” As we teach our children, the word Hanukkah means “dedication” – “It’s the festival that commemorates the purification and rededication of the Temple following the Greek occupation of that holy place. [It] reminds Jews to rededicate themselves to keeping alive the flame of Jewish religion, culture, and peoplehood so that it may be passed on to the next generation.”

And to that sentiment, I say ditto. But also, I believe we can embrace excitement concerning the holiday season without losing our unique identity. I think we should stop feeling this gnawing apprehension that Hanukkah is merely a minor holiday, but utilize Hanukkah as “A means for North American Jews to feel a kinship with their neighbors.” After all, how often do we complain that nobody in the office wishes us a “L’Shana Tova!” during the Days of Awe? How often is pizza or pasta the only option for dinner during Passover at a friends house? Am I the only one who remembers University professors scheduling mandatory tests and presentations on Yom Kippur!? Yom Kippur of all days! But during Hanukkah, people who you didn’t even think knew you were Jewish, light up with cheer and proudly greet you with “Happy Hanukkah!” And why should we shy away from that? Dismiss their affection with a downtrodden attitude about this festival not really being a “big deal.”

After all, if awareness is what we seek and religious freedom is what we fight for, why not start with Hanukkah? It’s palatable. Culturally and quite literally. Latkes are delicious. Hanukkah is not only relatable, but also a holiday of substance. Deeply ingrained meaning and relevance. Maybe we’re being too sensitive about this whole holiday cheer thing. Maybe it’s an opportunity to share a piece of our faith with folks who regularly don’t have the patience or wherewithal to pause and think about Judaism in American society. As Rabbi Schneerson taught:

God gave each of us a soul, which is a candle that He gives us to illuminate our surroundings with His light. We must not only illuminate the inside of homes, but also the outside, and the world at large.
— Joseph Telushkin's Rebbe: The Life and Teachings of Menachem M. Schneerson, the Most Influential Rabbi in Modern History

Etymologically speaking, Hanukkah and chinuch (education) share a common shoresh (root): chet, nun, chaf. So why can’t this holiday be about educating not just Jews, but our non-Jewish friends? Maybe Hanukkah should be more inclusive. I’m not saying we should paint the town blue and gold. But when Columbia University Jewish Professors are finding swastikas spray-painted on their office doors, maybe some positive Jewish press for a change could help spread the light – Help dispel the ominous anti-Semitic cloud that seems to be lingering over the heads of most American Jewish communities. As Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks eloquently spells out:

“Hanukkah is the festival on which Jews celebrate their victory in the fight for religious freedom more than two thousand years ago. Tragically that fight is no less important today, and not only for Jews but for people of all faiths.”

“More than half a century ago the Oxford philosopher John Plamenatz noted that religious freedom was born in Europe in the seventeenth century after a devastating series of religious wars. All it took was a single shift, from the belief that ‘Faith is the most important thing; therefore everyone should honor the one true faith’, to the belief that ‘Faith is the most important thing; therefore everyone should be free to honor his or her own faith.’ This meant that people of all faiths were guaranteed that whichever religion was dominant, he or she would still be free to obey their own call of conscience. Plamenatz’s striking conclusion was that ‘Liberty of conscience was born, not of indifference, not of skepticism, not of mere open-mindedness, but of faith.’ The very fact that my religion is important to me allows me to understand that your quite different religion is no less important to you.”

“The symbol of Hanukkah is the menorah we light for eight days in memory of the Temple candelabrum, purified and rededicated by the Maccabees all those centuries ago. Faith is like a flame. Properly tended, it gives light and warmth, but let loose, it can burn and destroy. We need, in the twenty-first century, a global Hanukkah: a festival of freedom for all the world’s faiths. For though my faith is not yours and your faith is not mine, if we are each free to light our own flame, together we can banish some of the darkness of the world.”

Hannukah Smeach L’Kolam!
Aaron Sataloff