The Evolution of Hanukkah

Perhaps you have heard some Jews laugh and brush off Hanukkah: “If only people knew how relatively minor and insignificant Hanukkah is,” they say, “they would never make such a big deal of it.” Have you ever heard this before: “It’s not that Hanukkah isn’t important—of course, it’s an important holiday about a miraculous victory of the Maccabbees,” they say. “It’s just that, compared to major holidays like Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Pesach, Hanukkah can’t—if you’ll excuse the expression—hold a candle!” I grew up hearing this message about Hanukkah, that it’s a nice, pretty holiday, but it’s not that important. And implied in this is the rather guilt-provoking message: You know, Jews of America, if you were more serious about your commitment to observance, you’d know that Hanukkah is getting more press than it deserves. And more than this, the secret that we Jews have to acknowledge is that the only reason Hanukkah gets all the attention it does is because of Christmas. All the Jewish kids who were jealous of their Christian friends getting presents resulted in the mass marketing of Hanukkah right alongside Christmas. So we Jews get to feel guilty, not only because we’re not observant enough, but also because we’re just copying Christians. We can all feel guilty because, ironically, Hanukkah, the holiday that is all about resisting assimilation, has become the purest expression of American assimilation.

We have to acknowledge that there’s some truth in all of this. But it’s only partial truth. As time goes by, I see a deeper message in the American Jewish experience of Hanukkah. Hanukkah really is a beautiful holiday about miracles, about victory against all odds, about the triumph of the spirit, about lighting up the darkness. But for so many Jews today, Hanukkah has more nuances and layers of meaning. In more and more houses, you see Hanukkah menorahs proudly displayed next to Christmas trees. And I mean proudly. Hanukkah, more and more, is evolving a message that it didn’t have in generations past: it’s a way of affirming the meaning of Jewish identity in the uniquely accepting multiculturalism of 21st-century America.

Generations ago, in the old country, our ancestors proudly placed menorahs in their windows as an act of defiance and courage. The outside world, symbolized by the darkness of this time of year, was an unsafe and rejecting place of anti-Semitic violence and betrayal. The message was clear: We stood up for who we are, and despite the hatred of the surrounding nations, despite their overwhelming strength and numbers, we prevailed. But it’s different now, here in America. The menorah now isn’t so much shining out into the dark night as it is illuminating the home within. More and more Jews aren’t observant. They might not believe in God. And yet, they will light that menorah. They will sing the dreidel songs with their children, they’ll make the latkes. Why? Because being Jewish matters to most American Jews. It’s something we’re proud of. Even if Kashrut and Shabbat haven’t found a way into the family’s home observances, Hanukkah works! It is accessible, powerful, and beautiful. Its message can be seen clearly in both its particularist and universalist dimensions. Both conventional and intermarried families can fully access this wonderful way to celebrate Jewishness.

We’re witnessing the evolution of Jewish observance in America. What’s happening before our eyes, frankly, is what has happened with all Jewish holidays over the centuries: they evolve. They take on new dimensions of meaning depending on the social and cultural conditions within which the Jews find themselves. And the new, American-Jewish dimension of Hanukkah is truly magnificent. Its message is: Here we are! We have made it in America! We’re really an accepted, successful, beloved people in this wonderful blessing of a society that is America.Our lives are multifaceted. Our choices for who to be and how to be are infinitely more complex than those of our ancestors. We are Jewish, yes, but we are also secular in many ways. We have access to multiple belief systems that we hold in the cognitive dissonance of our identities. We’re more and more intermarried. And yet, despite it all, the light of who we are as Jews has not gone out. To the contrary, it burns stronger and stronger. Our Jewish heritage, while so different now from what it was for our grandparents, is something we will proudly pass to our children.

In this day and age, in 2010—5771—Hanukkah truly is one of the most important holidays on the Jewish calendar. It is a cause for wild celebration. It is the shining light that reminds us that, despite dire predictions a generation ago, assimilation and intermarriage are not the death knell of the Jewish people. We are alive and well and proud to be who we are. It’s just that who we are is different now from what we were before. And this evolution of our people is good. It is a miracle. So this year, enjoy Hanukkah. Celebrate the light no matter who you are, whether observant, or secular, or not even Jewish. And while you’re celebrating, remember its message: that the spirit of this remarkable people is a light that burns brighter all the time, promising to be an ever-evolving blessing for generations to come.

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