Keeping Jewish Eyes in Focus
During the Holiday Season
by Rabbi Paul Kipnes, Congregation Or Ami, Calabasas, CA
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She popped her head into my office, two children in tow. She looked exhausted, more than a bit hassled. I inquired after her wellbeing. “It’s that darn holiday season,” she complained. “It’s hard enough to convince my kids that Chanukah is itself a joy without all those Christmas carols blaring. If I hear one more ’fa-la-la-la-la,’ I think I’ll scream. I don’t know how I will survive the onslaught of Christmas spirit…” And so began another holiday season, or more precisely, a commerce-driven Christmas masquerading as a moment of interfaith celebration.
I thought about my visitor. Who was this edgy, frantic friend? Normally a calm, together individual, she was transformed by the spirit of the season. Had she become a modern day Scrooge – bah-humbugging her way through the unique beauty and love at this time of year? Perhaps she was a real life Grinch seeking to fill the emptiness of her own minimalist celebration of Chanukah by annihilating the spirit of Christmas. Or was she just another Jew jealous of the overwhelming reach of Christmas in America?
One cannot live in America today without being touched, pushed, or pummeled by the commercialization of the wintertime holidays. Many of us have seen the halls decked so many times that the sting has gone out of the unique circumstances of being Jewish during Christmastime. Like that tenth piece of Halloween candy, the sugary succor is lost amid the monotony of the moment. Nonetheless, so many of us, while enjoying the color and flavor of Christmas, wonder aloud, “Why is it that Chanukah seems so second-rate next to the grandeur of Christmas? How do we survive the onslaught?” Read on, as I offer some suggestions.
Chanukah: No Longer a Minor Holiday
Chanukah was officially considered a minor holiday in the religious worldview of the ancient rabbis, in part because its origin dates not to the Torah but to Talmudic times. In fact, when the final format of the Bible was debated in the first century C.E., a number of books were considered for inclusion in the canon but ultimately rejected. The two books of the Maccabees were among those that were passed over. For the rabbis, the celebration of Chanukah was a necessary event to mark the rededication of the Temple. They marked the miracle of God’s intervention in human affairs ensuring the Maccabean victory over the Assyrian army through the mythic Rabbinic story of the oil that lasted for eight days.
Today, this once minor holiday ranks alongside Pesach and Purim as a most beloved Jewish family holy day. Clearly the stirring story associated with Chanukah, the rituals that emerged from it, and the special Chanukah games and foods combined to capture the Jewish imagination and elevate its status within the Jewish community. Of course, the holiday’s proximity to Christmas played no small part in its newfound status.
I am one rabbi who believes that Chanukah, with its wonderfully spiritual messages about the power of light, the need for hope, and the fight for justice and religious freedom, should be celebrated joyously and fully, along with these other Jewish holidays. Let our celebration be filled with storytelling, rituals, family and foods, it becomes a z’man simchateinu, a time for our joyfulness. Then it becomes the light that carries us through this season of sales.
Suggestions for Surviving the Holiday Season
How do we ensure that Chanukah remains a uniquely Jewish celebration? How can we defend our children and our values against odious assimilationist schemes which copy Christmas by stringing up Chanukah lights and buying a Chanukah bush? We do so by turning to time honored Jewish holiday behaviors.
Learn and Tell the Chanukah Story
The story of Chanukah, about a band of Jewish rebels who took up arms to defend Judaism against the assimilationist leanings of the reigning Jewish aristocracy, boasts equal measures of passion, intrigue and miraculous fancy. The only way to overcome the overwhelming reach of Christmas is to be grounded in the powerful story of the Maccabees and their value-laden fight for religious and political freedom. To make Chanukah meaningful, we need to be able to retell the story to ourselves and our children. Each night read, watch or act out the Chanukah story. Most book stores have a copy. Or order a copy of A Different Light: The Chanukah Book of Celebration by Noam Zion and Barbara Spectre (find it on Amazon.com) for many age-appropriate versions and celebration ideas. Don’t forget to sing the songs, play the dreidle game, put your menorah in the window and eat potato latkes and sufganiot (jelly filled donuts). These sensory experiences help reinforce the message and meaning of the holy day.
Do A Mitzvah: Extend the Light of Chanukah
As Rabbi Michael Strassfeld suggests in his book The Jewish Holidays, “The menorah reminds us of the miracle that no matter how dark life may be, there remains a source of light deep inside us. The light in our souls reflects and refracts the light form the One who is all brightness.” Engage in the mitzvah of gemilut chasadim (acts of lovingkindness) by brightening the life of those without extended families with whom to celebrate. Holiday time, both our Jewish holidays and the seasonal onslaught, can be depressing for single people, for single parents, and for divorced people. We can increase the light of Chanukah by helping uplift others. Invite them to your home for an evening of candlelighting, singing and feasting.
Gift the Gift of Tzedakah Eight Times
No one knows for sure when gift-giving on Chanukah began. Many scholars postulate that the practice is a carry-over from the biblically-based custom of sending gifts (mishloah manot) to one’s friends on Purim. Jews also gave children gelt (small coins) which they often used while playing dreidle. We all love to receive and give gifts. Make sure that the gift-giving does not overwhelm Chanukah’s basis in the story. Set aside one day when children give presents (but do not receive themselves) to each other or to their parents. Set aside another night when tzedakah boxes will be emptied (or drawers will be searched for stray coins), coins will be counted, and checks will be written to worthy Jewish organizations.
Some Thoughts Especially for Interfaith Families
One cannot have both Chanukah and Christmas. Jewish and Christian educators caution us that this becomes confusing to children. Jewish and Christian clergy note that it is dishonest to the narratives and values that underlie both celebrations. Choose one holiday (and one religion) and build your home celebration around it. Yes, visit Grandma to help trim the tree. (Being with family transcends the rabbinic dicta against engaging in non-Jewish practices.) At the same time, make sure that you are clear with yourself and your children that this is Grandma’s holiday, not ours. And make sure that you and your children celebrate Chanukah with as much verve and gusto as traditionalists do Christmas. As issues arise (or better, before they arise), call a rabbi (I’ll be glad to talk to you) so that together we can explore ways of depressurizing this especially pressure-filled season.
To See the World through Jewish Eyes
The challenge of this time of year remains the trying to see the world through Jewish eyes. A richly lived Jewish life is inspiring and joyous. It provides enough fulfillment to overcome any pressures that come from living in a non-Jewish world. When you need a little extra help to see the world through Jewish eyes, I suggest you drop by a Judaica gift shop and pick up special 3-D Chanukah glasses. When worn, these glasses transform Christmas lights (and any other light bulbs) into shining Stars of David. What a perfect way to respond to the challenge of the winter season. Actually, this is just a wonderful first step. The next step, celebrating Chanukah to its fullest, is up to you.
Chag Sameach – Happy Chanukah!