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.