Merry Chanukah

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Besides the political message it carries, this shift in emphasis, from the renewed sanctification of Judaism’s holiest place to an upset victory by a plucky underdog, has allowed the holiday to be celebrated by those whose tolerance for miracles extends no further than the movie Hoosiers . Even the story of the oil can be finessed, the way some secular-minded Christians suggest that the miracle of the loaves and fishes was really a giant potluck supper. Best of all for less-than-fervent Jews, Chanukah involves no fasting, you don’t have to skip work, and no synagogue attendance is required.

In an age when faith is on the decline, Chanukah can be a sort of Judaism Lite, allowing religion and culture to be combined in whatever proportions best suit the celebrant. Not everyone is happy with the results. Frank Rich, the long-time theater critic, gives his postwar upbringing a characteristically unenthusiastic review: “The emphasis on Chanukah in relation to other more important Jewish holidays was one of the things that made organized Reform Judaism seem bogus to me.” But for those not destined to become critics, the holiday’s protean nature was useful, especially as Jews moved out of the familiar environment of their urban enclaves. In 1958 Rich’s future employer, The New York Times , reported that “the years since the war have seen a resurgence of Hanukkah, especially in the suburbs,” where many newly arrived Jews had suddenly “realized their minority status.” Earlier generations of Jews had spent their lives surrounded, if not overwhelmed, by Jewish culture. Now the biggest influences on their children’s lives were Elvis and Mickey Mouse.

 

Nor was the borrowing all one-way. With Middle Americans guffawing at Borscht Belt comedians on television, noshing on Jewish deli food, and sprinkling their conversation with Yiddishisms, Jews now had to make an effort to stand out from their fellow Americans, rather than (as before) to blend in. Cultural syncretism eventually reached the point where bagels could be purchased at McDonald’s (with ham or pork sausage yet). For those who were falling away from their heritage, Israel served as a real-world museum where Jews could preserve their culture and beliefs without actually having to live them. And Jewish religious rituals—which, unlike Jewish food or humor, were not likely to be co-opted by gentiles—provided a way to keep Jewishness from disintegrating into the universal solvent of American mass culture.

For atheist Jews, of course, culture is what Chanukah is all about. Hershl Hartman, a “secular humanist” Jewish scholar, sees in the religious aspects of the holiday a conspiracy of ancient rabbis to hijack a pre-existing winter folk festival that was also a celebration of popular revolution. In place of the traditional prayers, he recommends reading meaningful passages after each candle is lit, a process that may leave participants feeling that a quick trip to the synagogue would be preferable.

To fund-raisers and boosters of Jewish causes, Chanukah plays the role that The Nutcracker does for ballet companies: a holiday tradition that may be a bit overdone, but for a good cause. Leftist Jews tailor their celebrations to express sympathy with the struggle for liberation of oppressed peoples. For religiously mixed families, a chanukiyah on the Christmas table and a Star of David atop the tree keep everybody happy. Even non-Jews can get in on the act by putting chanukiyahs in their village squares or building lobbies.

As for children, Chanukah gives them at least a fighting chance to resist the seductive appeal of Santa, Rudolph, and “Jingle Bells.” The Old World custom of giving small cash gifts on Chanukah has expanded to include cars, vacations, and the latest electronic gadgets. In some ways, Chanukah out-Christmases Christmas, because you can get presents on all eight days and there’s even legal gambling with the dreidel. Imaginative families put up “Chanukah bushes,” hang blue-and-white stockings decorated with six-pointed stars to be filled by “Chanukah Harry” or “Uncle Max,” read stories about “Smiley Shalom” (a Jewish Frosty the Snowman), and cover their houses in bushels of electric lights. America’s Jews have reacted to their exclusion from Christmas the way they typically react to their exclusion from a country club: by building a better one of their own. So that’s why Chanukah is best thought of as Jewish Kwanzaa—an invented cultural celebration that each family or group adapts in its own way. Of course, by the same token, Christmas is Christian Kwanzaa (and if you object that it lasts only one day, see how many people are in your office on December 28). Easter commemorates the central miracle of the Christian faith; Christmas was not observed until early in the fourth century, when the purported anniversary of Jesus’ birth was fixed on the date of a pre-existing Roman festival, the same way Kwanzaa was opportunistically placed in the week between Christmas and New Year’s. Not until the mid-nineteenth century did Christmas become an industrializing America’s dominant winter holiday. Just like Chanukah, it grew to fill a need.