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A Celebration of Identity

Hanukkah – the most important holiday of the Jewish year. Not really, of course: Holidays like Rosh ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur and even (especially!) the weekly observance of Shabbat have far more religious significance. In fact, religiously speaking, Hanukkah hardly rates. But all that goes out the window every December, when Jews flock to the mall amidst a flurry of wreaths, Christmas carols, and Santa Clauses. In 21st-century America, Hanukkah is a holiday that’s all about identity.

Jews are a minority in this country, and that’s not going to change anytime soon. And while we’ve made tremendous strides into the mainstream, with Jews in prominent positions throughout the country and Yiddish phrases peppering sitcoms beamed into the heartland, every December we’re not-so subtly reminded that we live in a predominantly Christian country. Which is fine, because it gives Jews a chance to proclaim their different, minority status and to affirm their identity against the larger cultural norms, much as the Maccabees resisted Antiochus’ attempts to assimilate them in the initial episode that gave rise to Hanukkah.


And when Hanukkah falls on Christmas itself as it does this year, these questions only get sharpened: Do you go to your friends’ (or relatives’!) Christmas parties or do you stay home to light the menorah? Or do you bring it with you to the Christmas party? Do you watch ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ by the light of the Hanukkah candles to discover the true meaning of the holiday? The choices we make implicitly speak to the way we define ourselves over and against the larger American society. And from this perspective, Hanukkah truly is important, by giving us a chance to boldly and loudly proclaim our difference.

What does this difference consist of? When it comes to Hanukkah, it’s not so readily apparent. At first blush, one frenzy of shopping and gift-giving doesn’t look so very different from another–after all, is one present for eight nights so different from eight presents in one night? And while lighting the menorah and reciting the blessings are certainly a distinctive part of the Hanukkah celebration, their religious significance can easily get lost among the general festivities. This is why I think that Hanukkah in America is ultimately a holiday of identity.


By lighting the menorah, we affirm that we are Jewish, that we are different. It is together with the other holidays of the Jewish calendar– in fact, with the way we live our lives day-in, day-out and try to suffuse the everyday with holiness–that we can instill content in our difference and add meaning to our Jewishness. But on Hanukkah, at the season of the December Dilemma, proudly proclaiming our identity may be a good start.

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posted December 16, 2005 at 12:48 am

I agree that Hanukkah is an affirmation of Jewish identity, but I still think the holiday has become commercialized and bloodless enough that it has almost nothing to do with Judaism. True, it still gives Jews something to proclaim and be proud of, but if the most well-known Jewish holiday is only well-known because of its proximity to Christmas, what is it saying Judaism means, other than “not Christianity”?In line with what R.Stern wrote, I wish Jews played up Shabbat as much as Christians play up Christmas. Shabbat has real cultural and religious significance, as well as a uniqueness (a holiday every week!) that could truly make a difference in today’s world and, therefore, make an important statement about the possibilities and vitality of Judaism. With the American celebration of Hanukkah, I’m afraid, the only thing Jews are really saying is, “Look! We’re not Christian!”

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posted December 16, 2005 at 8:44 pm

Giving gifts is fine, as long as we remember to teach our children the story of Hannukah, and discuss its deeper themes and meanings for our lives as Jews. In our home, we do give gifts, but we also sing Hannukah songs, light the menorah, play dreidl for gelt, do Hannukah crafts, tell the story and share insights into it with each other throughout the week. Oh, yeah, and the latkes-it just wouldn’t be Hannukah without the applesauce vs. sour cream debate each year. :)

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posted December 17, 2005 at 12:00 am

I personally do not understand, never did understand, nor ever will understand the desire to compete with Christians at this time of the year – for what? Are we asserting our identity by loudly voicing the fact that we are “not Christians” and that we too want wrapping paper with magen David’s and Chanukiah to wrap our Chanukah gifts? Does no one else find it ironic that none of the other world religions/ethnic minorities (Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Pagans, Ba’hai, etc) find it necessary to do so? Are they so much more secure in their identity and strength of conviction than we are? So its Christmahanukwanzika. Happy holidays and all that. Do we really WANT to hear them start playing Lecha Dodi or something over the loudspeaker at Foley’s/Macy’s/Neiman Marcus etc every year and end up with a bankrupt checking/credit/savings account all for the sake of assimilating and keeping up with the Jones’s so we can proudly proclaim that we too have a holiday just as “special” as theirs? That Chanukah is “just as good” as Christmas. Why feel the need to do so? Do the Buddhists care? Do Hindus? Do Ba’hai or anyone else? So the issue really is why do we? Is this not yet another perspective or mode of assimilating? Because see if we really were not assimilating – we simply wouldn’t care. It wouldn’t be a blip on our radar. We’d give our Christian friends their Christmas gifts, wish them their happy holidays, and *come home* to our own loving families complete with challah knives and kiddush cups, with gefilte and latkes, gelt, lights, and if it looked beautiful and just because we liked it – our own darn “Christmas” tree (Disclaimer: No I do not keep a Christmas tree – doesn’t mean I don’t think they are pretty but I have no need of a Douglas fir shedding on my carpet thanks) without fretting and wondering if my Jewishness is threatened by a decorated fire hazard. Just my two cents for the tzedakah box.

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Marilyn H Irick

posted December 17, 2005 at 4:53 pm

If we keep love in our foregrounds and give with this love then we emulate a G-d of love and of giving. Celebrating with Christians is in any sense a celebration for G-d. Judaic-Christians would never say should we be at the lighting of Hanukah candles with the blessings being said to the one true G-d of all. Give, love and live in G-d’s mercy, that’s what we all do. Oh, and be thankful and give thanks to G-d… always in the clebrations we offer!

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posted December 20, 2005 at 3:44 pm

Adah comments about our competition to Christmas compared with those of other faiths are really insightful – you don’t see Buddhists with light up Buddha’s in their windows, but, my Jewish journey started because of a need to protect my children from the scare tactics used in our predominately Christian southern community. Then it became so much more. Maybe Hanukkah can be like that too – it starts as “not christian”, but everything has to start somewhere, right? My husband has often said that he thinks the reason Hashem chose our family to be Jewish is too show our community that any person can be a Jew, even a working class family that’s “just like them”, and their ignorant comments about other races and faiths will not be acceptable forever. I agree with Rabbi Waxman, that proclaiming our identity proudly when people are looking may actually be enough to say that we are keeping the story of Hannukah at the center of the celebration.

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