01 December 2008

The December Dilemma, Part 1: The Celebration of Chanukah as a Jewish Subsitute for Christmas or as our D-day?

A sad statistic bouncing around in Jewish education circles concerns the contact hours the average American Jewish child is given towards chinukh. [Day school grads and parents, this refers to "supplementary schools", most commonly known as Hebrew school.] From consecration until confirmation*, the typical American Jewish child (at best) will have a third grader's understanding of Judaism.  No parent in their right mind would think to send a child into the world with such a rudimentary grasp in secular studies (aside from some charedim, but that's a topic for another post), yet it's commonplace in many parts of American Jewish society. The synagogue (and by extension, its Hebrew school) are the key connections these children will have to any sort of yiddishkeit.

Now, meh Chanukah?

When American Jewry assimilated into "regular" society, one of the first things noticed was the big deal made about Christmas. For Christians, Christmas is a big deal. It commemorates the "virgin birth" of their humanized form of their god. [Ironically, the selection of December 25 had more to do with early Christians desire to hide their beliefs than actual knowledge of the day of his birth. Until the Romanization of the Early Church, December 25 was known as Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (Birthday of the Invincible Sun) since the sun conquered the dark of the solstice.]

This child-like understanding of Judaism has added significance when one sees the recent statistics in the non-frum world. The rate of inter-marriage has exceeded 50% and is not showing any signs of slowing down. In fact, within the Reform setting of my Hebrew teaching job, it's more rare to have students with two Jewish parents than inter-married combinations. These couples have one type of "December dilemma" involving the celebration of Christmas and Chanukah (one, the other, or both) and to what extent will they be observed. Each inter-married couple makes their own decisions on the matter.

With this in mind...

Secular Jews have taken Chanukah and made it into a "Jewish Christmas". They are both in the winter, and somehow, Chanukah has morphed into some gift frenzy. However, even for "completely" Jewish families there is another type of December dilemma: how much to play up Chanukah. Should we (pardon the expression) "pimp out" our houses with lighted dreidels and over-elaborate displays to equalize the holidays? Twenty years ago, many a Jewish child in public school would go home and ask their parents for a Christmas tree. Some said, absolutely not and others would compromise with a "Chanukah bush", which is an evergreen covered in dreidels, lights, etc. The other option would be to keep Chanukah in its original position as a rather minor holiday commemorating a military victory in our history.

I have been called a koferet (?) for preferring to place higher significance on the narrative of the Books of the Maccabees (originally written in Greek, not part of our TaNaKh, but available in some Christian Bibles) than on the explanation the rabbis give in Masechet Shabbat 21b about the miracle of the oil. (This story is a key contributor to the Sunday school myth many of these secularized Jews carry with them, as part of their third grade education.) The battle which awarded the Maccabees Beit ha-Mikdash was significant, but it didn't end the war with the Syrian Greeks. According to the narrative, the re-dedication of Beit ha-Mikdash was eight days long to echo Sukkot. Sukkot was the most recent holiday missed due to the battles and the desecration. When Beit ha-Mikdash had initially been dedicated, it lasted eight days and was during Sukkot. The Hasmoneans (who ultimately ruled Judea) were not extremely religious (and in fact turned out to be relatively similar to the Greeks when they force converted various groups to Judaism) and would have downplayed any possible miracles. Why, then, did the Rabbis link a "miracle" to the celebration? By the time of CHaZaL, the Romans had completely destroyed Beit ha-Mikdash and the Rabbis felt the necessity to downplay military valor after Bar Kokhba. So, a re-interpretation of a holiday observance was put into place to continue its relevance to new generations.

When comparing Chanukah to non-Jews, I liken it to D-day. Both are commemorations of key events in wars and their actions resulted in ultimate victory. This is especially important to me as cool yiddish papa and I are it when it comes to observance. All of our siblings are married to non-Jews and do literally NOTHING when it comes to Chanukah. Therefore, the grandparents (also secular) like to play up the gift aspect of this season and it's an equalizer for the religious diversity we have. It's hard year after year to get it into our parents' heads that we prefer to keep the holiday low-key. We light the menorah nightly and I like to get creative about what gets fried in oil (this is the one time of year we eat this much fried food), including new types of latkes, onion rings, eggrolls, cheese sticks, etc. (From a financial standpoint it is to allow CYP's cousin, who is barely making ends meet, able to participate without feeling bad about giving cheap gifts.)

Do any of you have similar dilemmas about Chanukah? Please comment and share.

* The Reform (and later on, the Conservative) movements created these additional life-cycle events to mark a child's entry (and graduation) from Jewish education. Consecration is typically held in first or second grade, usually on Simchat Torah, and commemorates a child's start of their Jewish education. At some synagogues, the girls will wear white frilly dresses (similar to First Communion dresses). If the child did not stop at Bar/Bat Mitzvah, they continue for another couple years and commemorate their "graduation" on Shavuot in a ceremony called Confirmation. Some of it models the Catholic church which "confirms" a child's baptism at the age of thirteen. The confirmands will often wear robes and take roles in leading the service. One innovation that a local temple started doing was to do away with the robes and grant the confirmands with full membership in the temple in their own right (including representation on the board), thereby solidifying a spot for the teenager in the Jewish community.


  1. I don't have experience, but I want to share my thoughts:

    Why do you have to "Teach" your parents to keep it "low key".

    Look, the grand-parents are just one part of the children's life, so why should they not receive gifts from them at this special occasion? Would it be incompatible to let the grand-parents do the gift-part? it does not necessarily mean that you have to give them expensive gifts. But if your parents feel that this is a way they want to show their grandchildren that they love them, why not? It can be very hurting when you interfere with your parent's gift-giving. So why? And you children probably do know that they have a different life-style than you. So anyway, they have to live with "multi-culturalism" and contradictions.

  2. As far as "chanuka-lighting" is concerned:

    Of course, for christians all this lighting stuff is connected to christmas. But on the other hand it just makes long winter nights a bit less dark. So I think eventually, it will be dissociated from christmas (thanks to the invention of the LED)...

  3. Shoshi:

    a) I didn't use the word "teach" to keep it low-key. Our parents make a big deal about the gift-giving for EVERYONE. They see the kids on one night of Chanukah and hand over a bunch of gifts for them to open. They are thrown around and not appreciated within two weeks.

    I didn't suggest the grandparents NOT give my children gifts (because I know this would deprive them of their joy). The part that's hard for them to understand is WE (my husband and I) don't make a deal about presents. My mother-in-law has commented to our children (in front of us) that we are depriving them. She also can't get "why" we are not into it so her defense mechanism is to criticize us.

    2) The point of my post was to highlight that this is a dilemma for a lot of American Jews. I have a friend with financial troubles who's literally depressed right now because they can't afford to give their children ANYTHING (even something cheap) this year. Some people like to play it up, others don't. I had no intention of judging people's positions on the subject but was attempting to present sides objectively and then state my views.


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