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A Hanukkah Epiphany

Epiphanies can happen in the strangest places.

We had gone to see a movie. I don’t remember which one. It was years ago. My son was young, perhaps six or seven. It was holiday season. A large Christmas tree stood in the lobby of the theater. My son stood at the foot of the tree and looked up at the sparkling lights and decorations. Then he turned around, as if searching for something and asked, “Where is the menorah?” Spotting an electric menorah on a counter, I pointed it out to him. “It’s so small,” was his reply as he took my hand.

We just stood there for a moment, hand in hand, halfway between the tree and the menorah. He looked back and forth from one to the other and then said, “Christmas is beautiful, but Hanukkah is my holiday.” He said those words with a quiet determination, as if situating himself as a proud minority within a dominant culture he could appreciate but need not be envious of.


When I was his age, my response had been very different. I so wanted to be part of the magic Christmas seemed to offer. I came up with a plan. I saved my pennies for weeks before I had enough to purchase a small bag of tinsel, an envelope of hooks, and a box of tiny ornaments, little glass balls of red, blue, and green. I precariously took my mother’s prize jade plant off the kitchen window sill and set it in the living room. It looked like a tree, with its branches and large central stem, so I decorated it accordingly, carefully draping the tinsel and hanging the little ornaments from their hooks. I was so proud of my accomplishment, looking at it this way and that, until my mother walked in. “It’s a Hanukkah bush!” I triumphantly explained as her face fell. I did not fully understand her dismay until my neighbor and playmate, Kris, came in and asked why I had a funny-looking Christmas tree in my living room. “I thought you were Jewish,” she explained. “We are,” I replied. That evening I removed all the decorations and returned the jade plant to the kitchen window sill, longing to have what Kris had: a glorious tree covered with lights and surrounded by piles of presents.


My parents were first-generation Americans. They both grew up in kosher homes. Their mothers lit Shabbat candles every Friday night. However, like most of their generation, they fled what they experienced as the stifling restrictions of an old-country Judaism of rote and rules that offered little by way of meaning or inspiration. My parents felt Jewish, and most of the time that was enough. We lit the Hanukkah candles each year, though I don’t remember singing any songs or even playing the dreidel as a child. My mother baked hamentaschen for Purim. We held two Passover seders and, for eight days, refrained from eating bread or bacon–because they were not pesadik (kosher for Passover). We gave money to Israel. It was not until the end of college that my search for spiritual meaning brought me back to the Judaism hidden from me as a child, a Judaism rich with symbolism, joyful traditions, and a path toward personal and spiritual growth.


My son, of course, knew nothing of my inner struggle. From birth, he knew the joy of welcoming angels to the flicker of Sabbath candles; of his parents’ hands resting on his head in blessing each Friday night. He felt the anticipation of spending weeks planning our family Purim costumes and of relishing the taste of Israeli fruits on Tu B’Shevat. His child’s need for decorating and delight was fulfilled in the thrill of unpacking our boxes of decorations, making new decorations, and finding the perfect place to hang them all in our Sukkah each fall. It was no wonder he could appreciate Christmas without the sense of unease, envy, and guilt I had always felt growing up. In his world, Hanukkah did not need to carry the weight of Christmas comparisons because it was but one of a weekly and monthly parade of particularly Jewish celebrations, each joyful, holy, and special in its own way.


Looking down at my son, a weight lifted from my own heart. I realized that I, too, could appreciate Christmas for all its once-a-year pageantry without the discomfort of feeling left out. I was not about to join the nearest carolers or the local ‘Messiah’ sing-in.

There is a difference between being an appreciative observer and actively participating in the religious rites and rituals of others. However, I could finally enjoy the lights, and even the ubiquitous holiday music and decorations, without the baggage of my youthful yearning, just as I might enjoy any other culture’s ethnic or religious festival, with curiosity and pleasure. Since I experienced this Hanukkah epiphany looking through my son’s eyes, I, too, have been able to see that Christmas is beautiful, and that Hanukkah is my holiday, one of many holy and happy days we share together throughout the year.

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posted December 16, 2005 at 9:01 pm

i very much agree w/ what you R’ saying about not understanding while growing up in your own youth, what your parents were doing.i deal w/ that same thing, as i am only a new Jew by choice. but i am very glad 2 hear that you found your way. and i would enjoy any spiritual guidence by you if possible.

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Gail Srebnik

posted December 17, 2005 at 1:37 am

Rabbi Grossman your words brought me back to a time I was driving in my car with my then 4 year old son. As we drove along on a december day we stopped at a light and looking to a house we saw christmas decroations. My son said “we hate that don’t we?”. I was surprised and then realized that somehow I had passed on my dislike for being overpowered by so many reminders of christians and my feeling a minority. I changed, it took awhile. We now still celebrate only our holidays but we all can enjoy what friends of ours celebrate without negativity.

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posted December 18, 2005 at 8:34 pm

As a Christian I struggle to find spiritual meaning in the symbols that are supposed to represent the faith I was born into and am struggling to embrace fully. I appreciate your commitment to your journey and am grateful that you shared your story.

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Margaret Wilson

posted December 18, 2005 at 9:41 pm

I enjoyed reading your comments. I have struggled for years with being a minority in a Christian nation. I teach school and everything centers on Christmas. If they throw in any other holiday, it is an afterthought. In some years, I have said something and in one case an African American teacher told me that you, Jews, have to realize that this is Christian nation and you are a minority and have to go a long with the majority viewpoint. I felt like coming back with how would you feel if I said that this is a predominately white nation and you should accept the majority viewpoint. She would have accused me of racism. I am the daughter of a holocaust survivor and probably feel stronger than some that we need to maintain our identity as Jews. It’s difficult because I live in a household where I am the only non-African American, the only Jew and the only person that is not part of the same biological family. My biological family does not accept me and adapted my father’s Christian beliefs rather than my mother’s Jewish identity. I just recently became more involved with a synongue and there too, I feel in a minority because I wasn’t raised with the traditions. (My mother I think was afraid that the same thing would happen here as happened in Germany and did not talk much about her past or her religious beliefs. We knew that they were a part of her life but we were denied any real involvement. I have taken the position at work that if the assembly is going to be focused on Christmas then my class/students can be involved only if they are included in another room. I will not teach Christmas carols, nor will I take an active role in the assembly. I choose to stay back in the classroom with students who are not allowed to participate either due to behavior or the beliefs of their parents. I can appreciate carols on the radio, etc. as a form of music but I do not go out of my way to listen to them. Right now, I am looking at the Christmas tree in the living room which is predominately for my adopted granddaughter because her family is Christian. However, she attends some Jewish events with me. It may cause some confusion but it is the only way that we can all co-exist.

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Carli Fried

posted December 19, 2005 at 3:57 pm

I too find myself struggling to uphold my Jewish identity in a strongly Christian community. Too much commercialism? Maybe. But now I can walk into retail stores and buy Chanukah decorations to display in my home. I think this is very empowering. I am proud to be a Jew, and now I can create a beautiful display in my home equal to any Christmas display. To me, bright blue and white lights, blue and silver bows, and menorahs all over the house is a celebration of who I am, not an effort to compete with Christmas or “Christmas envy”. Afterall, Chanukah is the “Festival of Lights”, so I light up my home every year in celebration. May the miracle of the Chanukah lights continue to inspire us at this time and throughout the year!

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posted December 20, 2005 at 4:02 pm

Chidren have a way of sussing out the root of something, don’t they? My four year old is in his room playing way more video games than I usually allow, because he’s tired on fighting the t.v. during morning cartoons. As he so adequately put my thouthts, “I wish there wasn’t so much Christmas stuff all the time. One of the channels should be just regular cartoons, so me and Jaden (his Christian friend) can watch cartoons together.”

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Marian Neudel

posted December 20, 2005 at 9:33 pm

I do join the local “Messiah” sing-in every year. A large part of it consists of haftarahs.

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posted January 1, 2006 at 11:28 pm

I love these articles because I often feel like I am a “bad” Jew for enjoying the Christmas holidays. I grew up in a non observant household, and we stopped celebrating Hanukkah when my sister and I were very young. My entire childhood was spent begging my parents for Christmas. I loved everything, the decorations, food, TV specials, and the songs. Of course the idea of presents too, especially since returning to school post holidays to hear what all the other kids got was extremely painful. As an adult I still enjoy Christmas, I love everything about it and it makes me feel good. I also am proud to be different, to be in the minority and to have a menorah and Jewish decorations to put up. It’s important to enjoy other traditions and holidays just as we expect others to enjoy and respect ours. I think we still have a long way to go to get it all sorted out, but in the meantime I know that when I am wished a “Merry Christmas” it comes from a place of kindness and warmth, and that is exactly how I take it.

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Ruth Gelman PhD

posted December 25, 2006 at 12:45 am

“Free, free, free at last” we Jews proclaim at Sinai. With that, we Jews firstly establish the concept of freedom and individual liberty in the world. And as I choose to daily remember and observe our Hanukas, Sabbaths, and many holidays, I too realize our eternally God-sustained Sinaitic civilization. Our Sinaitic civilization is here to enlighten the nations! Our mission! Be converted; think and act largely! Ruth

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