I wanted to say a few words about the War on Hanukkah, and yes that really is a thing. Yesterday, I went to Dana-Farber, a Boston-area hospital with expertise in the treatment of cancer, for my bi-annual check-up (as many of you know, I had cancer surgery in mid-December 2014; and I am pleased and grateful that my doctor says there has been no recurrence). It was there that I saw my first Hanukkah decorations of the season: a beautiful silver menorah at the reception desk on the 10th floor. And while I was gratified to see an acknowledgement that Hanukkah exists, I was also frustrated that I have seen NO Hanukkah decorations in any of the many department stores where I've shopped recently. Nothing. Lots of Christmas decorations, lots of Christmas music (which seems to start earlier and earlier each year), but no recognition that other people have holidays at this time of year too.
Believe me, I understand that Hanukkah didn't used to be such a big deal as it is now. Historically, it hasn't been a major holiday for Jews the way Passover and Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) are. In fact, Hanukkah isn't even mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. But we do know it had become sufficiently popular that the Jews of Jesus' time, including him, observed it (the New Testament gospel of John mentions this). And especially after the Holocaust, as Jews sought to reaffirm their identity in countries like the US that were overwhelmingly Christian, Hanukkah began to take on new significance. Jewish parents, my own included, had long struggled with the popularity and prevalence of Christmas-- it seemed to be everywhere, and Jewish kids felt totally ignored.
Of course, we could join the majority and celebrate the Christian holiday, but many Jewish families saw that as both inappropriate and ironic-- after all, the Hanukkah story is about NOT imitating the majority. It's about the Maccabees, a courageous group of Jews living in ancient Greece (circa 167 BCE) who refused to assimilate, refused to worship the Greek gods, and refused to give up their beliefs even in the face of a majority who demanded that they do so. And whether or not the story is historically accurate in every detail, its emphasis on Jewish pride, and on kindling the menorah to symbolically bring the light of hope and faith into a world of darkness and intolerance resonated then as it does even today. Perhaps because it normally comes in December, and perhaps because it includes the custom of giving gifts to children (small gifts, for eight days), Hanukkah has acquired a reputation as the "Jewish Christmas," even though its theology is not in any way related to what Christians believe. [For an excellent historical explanation of the rise in importance that Hanukkah plays in American society, this 2000 article from American Heritage magazine will fill you in:
But for reasons I've never understood, American businesses generally tend to ignore the existence of Hanukkah. Perhaps it's because Hanukkah comes at a different time each year, and it's too difficult for merchants to keep track of it. Or perhaps it's too much bother to get a menorah or find some Hanukkah decorations. We all know that Christmas paraphernalia is easy to find and it's everywhere; Hanukkah stuff is evidently too difficult to locate, except in certain Jewish neighborhoods. But that's not the issue. For me, the issue is whether our culture respects all faiths, or whether those in the majority believe only theirs are worthy of display. Frankly, I'd rather that merchants would take note of Passover, a much more central holiday in Jewish life, or make some time to note the Jewish New Year. I also wish our culture acknowledged the major holidays of other minority faiths-- whether it's Buddha's Birthday or Ramadan or Diwali or others. We all live here, and we should all be made to feel welcome. Yes, I know that some of my conservative friends believe America is a "Christian nation" (it's not, and our Founding Fathers, all of whom were various kinds of Christians, never said it should be). But the truth is we are a nation with freedom of worship, and a nation that should not impose just one tradition on everybody.
And yet, we do. When I ask about Hanukkah decorations in stores, the reaction tends to be anywhere from annoyance to indifference. But I am not asking anyone to share my beliefs. I am simply asking for an acknowledgement that I have holidays too. I don't want to take away yours. But I also don't want to see mine marginalized. In the age of Donald Trump, marginalizing "the other" seems to be in season: the president-elect has just announced his desire to appoint as Ambassador to Israel someone who is so ultra-conservative that he has accused liberal Jews (those of us who believe in a two-state solution and who support both the security of Israel and the human rights of the Palestinians) of being similar to Jews who collaborated with the Nazis. And I also notice that these days, my annual request for a recognition of Hanukkah (and other Jewish holidays) is often met online with scorn, and even some Antisemitic comments.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention that at this time of year, while we do agree that the Christmas trees and holiday lights are pretty, many of us also feel sorry for our Christian friends and neighbors-- your holiday has turned into a giant testimony to the power of consumerism, where Jesus is absent, and love is measured by how many dollars you spend. My dearest friend for 40 years was a nun. She said that as a Christian, the biggest gift of all should be the gift of salvation through Jesus. Yet all she heard was people lamenting how much shopping they had to do. Obviously, as Jew, I did not share her theology; but I totally shared her dismay that Jesus had become an afterthought in a society where spending money and buying expensive presents was the dominant activity of the season. And as for me, I will light my menorah and pray for a society where the light of love and tolerance conquers the darkness of anger and prejudice. And whatever you celebrate, whether it's Christmas, Hanukkah or Festivus
(let the airing of grievances begin!), I wish you health, happiness,
and joy in this season of celebration.