Archive for December 9th, 2011

December 9, 2011


by Decemberbaby

Ch? H? Two “n”‘s or one? One “k” or two? Is there an “h” at the end?

How to spell its name is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to confusion about Chanuka.

I don’t really want to reinvent the wheel, so first you should go and read this post about how Chanuka is not a Jewish Christmas. Go read it. I’ll wait.

Back already? Alrighty then.

I linked to that post on facebook as well, and it started a pretty long string of comments. My brother suggested that the “Christmasfication” (a new word, coined by moi. Like it?) of Chanuka is just another example of how things tend to change over time. “And why,” he asked, “is change necessarily a problem?”

Well. My objection to this particular change is its motivation. Nobody has argued that the themes of Chanuka would be better represented with blue-and-silver tinsel, strings of dreidel-shaped lights, a new focus on gift giving, and equal billing with Christmas. No, Chanuka has changed because of ignorance (mostly unintentional, but ignorance nonetheless) and envy (doesn’t every Jewish kid whine about wanting Christmas at some point or other?). In other words, the cause of Chanuka’s newfound commercialism and widespread fame is… assimilation.

For those of you who don’t understand why this is ironic… The Chanuka story tells of a small group of religious zealots (the Maccabees) who reject the Hellenization (assimilation into ancient Greek/Syrian culture) of the Jewish people. When the Syrians/Greeks defile the holy temple in Jerusalem, they snap. They take up arms and fight – not only against Antiochus and his army, but also against other Jews – those who assimilated and resembled their non-Jewish neighbours. Let me repeat: the fight may have been about freedom of religion, but it was also about the right and responsibility of Jews to separate themselves from the non-Jewish culture around them.

Maybe I’m strange, but I’ve often found it… unsettling… to think that most of the Jews I know today would not have been on the side of the Maccabees, and yet we celebrate their victory by… wait for it… imitating the celebrations of the majority culture. As Bart Simpson once said, the ironing is delicious.

So it’s not that change is bad. But change that contradicts the message of the holiday, and moves towards approximating the original problem that the holiday sought to eradicate, is bad.

Why does it matter? Well, that depends. Why do we remain Jews? Are we simply another tile in the cultural mosaic? Another spice in the melting pot?

I don’t think so. In the Torah, we are commanded by God: “Kedoshim t’hiyu”. “Kedoshim” is from the word “kadosh” which is usually translated as “holy”, but basically means set aside, consecrated, special. It’s the same verb that is used in a Jewish wedding ceremony. The groom says to the bride, “you are mekudeshet (consecrated, set aside) to me”. We are commanded to be separate, to be different.

And to what end? We have a huge (some might say burdensome) number of commandments to fulfill. Some are ethical, some ritual, some personal and some national. God tells us that it is our job to be a “light unto the nations”.

“Stop!” you say (well, let’s say just for the sake of argument, you do). “We’re not assimilated. We know we’re Jews. We still light candles every Friday night. We go to synagogue, not church (well, when we go, it’s to a synagogue.) We’ll get married under a chuppah.”

Well, yes. But assimilation is insidious, and I fear the more dangerous assimilation occurs when, rather than abandoning our beliefs and rituals, we change them to conform to the ideals of the majority.

When we move from being commanded not to cause suffering in any living creature to agreeing with Peta’s shock tactic of equating the Holocaust with the slaughter of chickens for food, we are abandoning Jewish thought and assimilating.

When we say that Hallowe’en is not a religious holiday and therefore it’s fine for our kids to Trick or Treat – we’re co-opting a Pagan holiday and encouraging our children in a tradition that is out-of-line with most Jewish practices (namely, that it’s fine to go from door to door demanding candy from neighbours rather than giving treats to them as we do on Purim; also, that it’s generally acceptable to play destructive or annoying pranks on neighbours you just don’t like, or to smash other people’s pumpkins.)

When we think of giving to charity as something kind that we do when we have extra money lying around rather than as an obligation to give from our income regardless of its size, we are assimilating.

When we claim that environmentalism is a central part of Judaism because of one commandment not to destroy the fruit trees of a city captured in battle, we’re assimilating. (Don’t get me wrong – there are other commandments regarding our obligation to be responsible for the earth we inhabit, but it being embraced as a major Jewish value just as the secular environmental movement is picking up steam seems… a bit too coincidental, don’t you think?)

And when we string up lights and give gifts in the name of religious freedom and peace on a holiday that commemorates religious separatism and an armed-revolt-turned-civil-war, you’d better believe we’re assimilating.

Look, I’m no modern-day Maccabee. As Jewishly engaged as I am, I’m pretty far from rejecting the majority culture in its entirety. But this Chanuka, I’ll celebrate by lighting candles (a direct commemoration of one of the miracles of Chanuka) and saying the blessings; eating foods fried in oil (again with the miracle of the oil); playing dreidel (rumored to have been a clever ruse to keep the Syrian/Greek soldiers thinking that we were gambling rather than illegally studying Torah); and giving my children chanuka gelt – money – as their gift, because (legend tells us) Jewish parents had to bribe their children to begin studying Torah again after the Syrians/Greeks had outlawed it.

So, no gifts, tinsel, or lights for my kids. But they do get some aspects of the Christmas experience: they decorate our sukkah each fall. And, just like a Christmas tree, the sukkah is still up nearly two months after the holiday is over.