Posts Tagged ‘Chanukah’

THE CHANUKAH DILEMMA

’Tis the season when most Americans embrace Christmas. But not all. I have no intention of putting a damper on Christmas to explain the challenges this holiday presents American Jews.

I’ll start, as in the recent past, with a comic strip—this time, “Luann” by Greg Evans. On November 29, Evans began a new storyline. A secondary character, Leslie Knox, shows no interest in Christmas. His Uncle Al explains, “Les lived with a Jewish foster family till I took him in. I don’t do holidays, so he’s never had a big Christmas.” Uncle Al’s new wife states, “Well, he’s in for a treat.”

I hoped “Luann” would explore the reality that not every American celebrates Christmas, which shocks some Christians. The next two days showed Les being pessimistic about the gaudy Christmas decorations hauled out of storage. Then the storyline disappeared. Perhaps Evans was just noodling in public. Or maybe newspapers received negative feedback: Christmas and all its trappings being questioned? Un-American! I don’t know.

But what many Jews term the “Christmas Dilemma” got swept under the rug. Then the novelist and journalist Michael David Lukas wrote a New York Timesarticle titled “The Chanukah Dilemma”(12-1-18). His three-year-old daughter wondered why they don’t celebrate Christmas. He told her that Chanukah is their holiday. But he found his thoughts conflicted.

Chanukah, Lukas noted, marks the Jewish victory in 162 BCE over the Assyrian Greek king Antiochus IV, who polluted the Temple with pigs and statues of Greek gods, and attempted to destroy Judaism. The Jews rebelled, won and then cleaned and rededicated the Temple. What disturbed Lukas: The victory included killing Hellenized—assimilated—Jews. How can he teach his daughter to celebrate a holiday marking a victory over assimilation when they, American Jews, are assimilated?

Or are they? I suggest that Lukas’ desire to celebrate Chanukah rather than Christmas removes him from that “stigma.” Americans are free to choose their religious practices—or reject religion. Lukas chose Chanukah—and Judaism. He is, of course, free to choose more: Send his daughter to a Jewish pre-school then religious school at a synagogue. Later, a Jewish day school. And observe Shabbat however he’s comfortable, as well as other Jewish holidays.

Moreover, Lukas can study Torah and other Jewish subjects by reading and/or taking classes. Whatever makes him comfortable. Being an “authentic” Jew starts, as Orthodox Chabad promulgates, with performing one mitzvah at a time. Thus “authenticity” encompasses a very big tent.

“Assimilation” itself is a tricky word. Joseph married the daughter of an Egyptian priest. Moses married the daughter of a Midianite priest. Diversity in Jewish thought represents a near-2,000 year-old tradition with influence from both Christian and Muslim scholars. Jews have also welcomed elements of the cultures among which we’ve lived—food, music, language, dress. And most Israeli Jews—the “paragons of Jewishness”—exhibit little or no interest in Judaism.

Michael Lukas doesn’t need to grow a beard and wear a black hat to be Jewish. Nor does he have to hide his identity, which only gives haters the victory they seek.

The death of a non-Jew, President George H.W. Bush, who—whatever your politics—displayed admirable decency and civility, provides an important reminder. ’Tis also the season to be kinder and gentler to everyone—including ourselves.

Happy Chanukah (this is day five), and to all who celebrate Christmas, may the season bring you joy and peace.

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THE “C” WORD

American standard bearers regard certain words as inappropriate or offensive. One prominent “bad” word begins with the letter “C.” But we’re adults. We know that people frequently use this word, often in polite company. I refer, of course, to Christmas.

Should I feel guilty for mentioning this word during the Holiday Christmas Season? I don’t. Christmas is a fact of life. True, it’s not my holiday. For that I offer another “C” word: Chanukah. But according to a 2014 Pew survey, 71 percent of Americans identify as Christians. Another 23 percent claim no religious identity, although many probably have Christian backgrounds and celebrate Christmas in some manner. That’s why “Holiday Season” and “Happy Holidays” strike me as lame. Worse, they’re deceitful.

One example: An automobile company sent me a card. The photo on the front displays five of their vehicles parked on a snowy meadow. Each has a tree tied to its roof. The copy line says, “Happy Holidays from BMW.” Oops. I spilled the beans. But here’s the point. There’s no such thing as a Holiday tree. If by “Happy Holidays” BMW means both Christmas and Chanukah—and perhaps Kwanzaa (Devali was November 11 this year)—then the automaker has insulted me. Christians and some non-Christians who just like Christmas decorate trees. We Jews light candles in chanukiahs (menorahs have seven lights, chanukiahs nine). And don’t let anyone BS you about “Chanukah bushes.” They represent attempts to alleviate fears of feeling different (obviously we are in some ways) and being left out or even shunned.

“Happy Holidays” doesn’t cut it. While the term suggests inclusiveness, it totally ignores the holidays of non-Christians. That’s because “Holiday” symbols abound, all suggestive of Christmas. Like the decorated trees in malls, department stores and even public spaces, such as San Francisco’s Union Square. And the carols you hear at malls and in retail districts. Not to mention images of evergreens, snowflakes, snowmen and, of course, Santa Claus.

And how about “winter vacation” from school? As a kid and college student, I was off for Christmas vacation. It interrupted, not concluded, the first semester. Would schools close around December 25 if Christmas fell during the summer? Has anyone suggested moving “Winter break” to January? Government offices, banks, corporations, small businesses—almost everyone—close on Christmas. They don’t close on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur or on Muslim feast days, such as Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha. But Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and others all manage.

Yes, religious minorities also get Christmas off. Unless we volunteer to work at necessary jobs and free others to celebrate. One Christmas at Fort Sam Houston I filled the post of Officer of the Day so another officer could enjoy his holiday. I was glad to help someone out. Moreover, the Army never interfered with Jewish holidays. Unfortunately, some Jews outside the military still have a hard time taking off for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur even if the pressure on them remains covert. I doubt “Happy Holidays” will change that.

So if you celebrate Christmas—Merry Christmas! Jewish? Happy Chanukah! African-American? Happy Kwanzaa if you do that. In fact, it’s time to bring other “C” words out of the closet. Because life is complex and political correctness only makes us hypocrites.

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CHANUKAH, CHRISTMAS AND SANITY

The holiday is over. The Holidays are in full swing. Yesterday marked the eighth and last day of Chanukah (the last candle-lighting was Wednesday night). The vast majority of Americans didn’t notice. They’re focused on Christmas. I feel for them.

I’m not much of a Chanukah gift giver. While Chanukah comes around the time of Christmas (it was way early this year), it’s not the Jewish equivalent. Theologically, Jews don’t recognize any offspring of God. In terms of significance, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Passover represent the major Jewish holidays. Sukkot, Simchat Torah and Purim, among others, form an important second tier.

Chanukah is meaningful, of course. It celebrates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem following a rebellion against the Assyrian Greeks—the overlords of Judea. In truth, the war against King Antiochus IV was in great part a war among Jews. Many found Hellenism attractive, although they remained Jews. Others, including the priest Mattathias and his son Judah Maccabee (Judah the Hammer), thought Hellenism repugnant—a threat to proper Jewish worship and continuity.

Moreover, every culture at some distance from the equator seeks to brighten winter’s darkness. The Chanukiah (a menorah has seven lights, not eight plus one for Chanukah) brightens our homes, streets—we display the lights publically—and spirits.

This year, the first day of Chanukah occurred on Thanksgiving (again, candle-lighting the night before). Such timing won’t repeat for tens of thousands of years. But whatever Chanukah’s dates, there’s a lesson to be shared with those celebrating Christmas. Repeating the British government’s advice during World War Two: Keep calm and carry on.

Chanukah lasts eight days. You get into it and out of it without too much commotion. Christmas is a single day, but it encompasses about two months of activity—slow build, frenzied anticipation, big night before, big day, post-Holiday sales. Christmas shopping gets a nudge the day after Halloween. The big push comes on Black Friday. Or so it used to be. Shopping now gets serious on Thanksgiving itself. Many Americans, who often guiltily view the Christmas season with a sense of dread—expectations tend to rise above achievable levels—wonder if they’re giving thanks for freedom and opportunity or for bargains.

For marketing purposes, the special days following Thanksgiving receive names. Black Friday we know. That leads to Small Business Saturday. Sunday suggests rest, but it’s America’s day to worship in the cathedrals of the National Football League. So let’s call it what it is—Football Sunday. Cyber Monday comes next. Then Giving Tuesday. Only the Wednesday that follows lacks a name—until now.

All hail Whipped Wednesday. I call on an exhausted America to sleep late and skip work, see a therapist to sort out Thanksgiving issues and prepare for what’s next, fast between brunch and dinner, pray for strength and get to bed early to conserve strength for the Christmas parties crowding calendars for the next several weeks.

Yes, some people overdo Chanukah. But most of us manage to keep things in perspective. This thought, along with Carolyn and my five Chanukiahs, lights up my soul.

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