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Is Hanukkah an Orgy of Consumerism?

Baruch Hashem (Thank God) for Macy’s. No matter how much Jews forget their Judaism, no matter how much they assimilate, no matter how much they intermarry, Macy’s will ensure that each and every Jew never forgets Hanukkah. For most American Jews, Hanukkah has become “the time of year when mom buys us Xboxes and Ipods and we light some candles.”

It’s easy being morally self-righteous around Hanukkah’s orgy of consumerism. But wagging our spiritual fingers at American Jewry as it sacrifices its paychecks to the gods of online shopping is far too simple and misses the social energy invested in this holiday. When Jews buy into Hanukkah, they are less tapping into their savings account than they are reveling in and revealing their power, success, and achievement.

Over the past 50 years American Jews have gone from being powerless to very powerful. We have gone from being Davids to being Goliaths of industry, politics, and the academy. I will spare you the clichéd self-congratulatory statistics. Nonetheless, many Jews continue to see themselves as powerless outsiders struggling against the evil forces of anti-Semitism and social marginalization.

I recently attended a culture and arts event in the Bay area, and the only thing that the 750-plus crowd dressed in what was dubbed “bar-mitzvah chic” could agree on was that being Jewish meant being an outsider and questioning societal norms.

I am sorry, kids, but you are either delusional, or you just don’t want to accept the responsibility of being powerful and influential. But more disconcerting than the mere blinders standing between their responses and their checkbook, is just how dangerously irresponsible it is for insiders to claim they are outsiders.

As my friend Daniel Septimus, editor of myjewishlearning.com, likes to point out, such thinking breeds the worst forms of social irresponsibility. When those who reside on the inside of American economic, political, and intellectual circles claim they exist on the margins, they a-priori recuse themselves from the responsibility of offering solutions and fixing the problems they feel exist in society. It is easy to be an outsider criticizing a powerful force; it’s much more difficult accepting responsibility for that force and harnessing it in an ethical and just way.

It is not only futile but unfair to ask Jews not to flaunt, spend, and celebrate their wealth and power. Let’s stop denying reality by claiming that Jews are something economically and socially they aren’t. And let’s let go of the perverse wish that we were once again poor outsiders. (You know, like the good old days in nineteenth-century Russia, where a Hanukkah gift was a spoiled piece of orange.)

Which brings me back to Hanukkah and to what some see as a celebration of material excess cloaked in the spiritual guise of gift-giving. We should stop being shocked that some children get eight gifts. Obviously, the parents can afford it. Instead, we need to start asking what is the family’s gift/charity ratio? Power and wealth corrupt only if those who have them at their disposal use them for selfish ends.

  • Rabbi Joshua Waxman: A Celebration of Identity
  • Rabbi Susan Grossman: A Hanukkah Epiphany


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    Dan Zwicker

    posted December 16, 2005 at 12:02 pm


    Dear Rabbi, Is Hanukkah an Orgy of Consumerism? I read your comments and I am curious about how you reached the conclusions you did. Could one not equally conclude that imitation (of Christmas) is the greatest form of flattery?…..as in keeping up with the Jones’. My experience has been that those who possess ‘real’ wealth financial or otherwise do not display it ostentatiously.



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    k. Nelson

    posted December 16, 2005 at 1:16 pm


    Real wealth is what we have within us, the rest is meant to be spread around so that good things can flourish and thrive.



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    Judy

    posted December 16, 2005 at 2:55 pm


    B”H I think the consumerism of both Chanukah and Christmas is a Chilul Hashem – I think it takes the spiritual and religious meaning out of the holiday and destroys it for those who it has meaning for There is always a reason for a holiday in this country – and I find it embarrasing – it reflects the capitalism of our country and does not respect that so many people in our country live below the poverty level – if all that money that we spend on gifts be given to Tzedakah it would be much better spent



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    Nina

    posted December 16, 2005 at 3:15 pm


    I think your comments are quite insightful, actually. I think many people – Jews or not – have difficulty recognizing and using their own power, and it is indeed much easier to assume you have no power than to allow as how you do and do nothing to advance our life on this planet. You have made me really think about this – I think self pity and holding on to old pain is very seductive. I know some who cannot let go of it, and they pass that on to their children. I could go on and on – it’s a fascinating area. Thanks for being provocative – as only we Jews can be!! How powerful we are!!!



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    senlin

    posted December 16, 2005 at 3:54 pm


    I will spare you the clich d self-congratulatory statistics Here’s my only problem with this column: Categorizing Jews as a nearly homogeneous mass of affluent insiders. Although clearly most American Jews fit this category, it’s still not fair to those who don’t. In Minnesota recently, a demographic study found that a significant minority of Jewish households had an annual income of less than $25,000. Most of these households are immigrants from Russia/former USSR, and Orthodox families. Some of the articles written about this story were, I thought, pretty repugnant and ignorant — in the vein of, “Contrary to popular belief, there’s a lot of poor Jews here!” The “cliched self-congratulatory statistics” are all well and good as long as we remember that they’re not totally true.



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    BlueInRedTx

    posted December 16, 2005 at 6:25 pm


    “Instead, we need to start asking what is the family s gift/charity ratio?” That’s a marvelous question. Although I must say that your view of Jews as complete insiders in today’s America is incorrect. Witness the false “War On Christmas.” It’s an attempt to marginalize other religions, including Judaism. And we’re losing the fight. I’m afraid that you are buying into the argument that Jews are some massive social and monetary powerhouse in this country when the statistics say otherwise. And so do our Nation’s leaders.



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    G.P.

    posted December 16, 2005 at 6:28 pm


    Absolutely correct. American Jewry as a whole has crossed the tipping point. It would be nothing short of hutzpah to think I have faced adversity compared to the challenges confronted by my parents and grandparents. My generation is not theirs. Chanuka is not for celebrating a defeat; it’s not for celebrating our weakness. We won. Chanuka is a time to celebrate our belief that faith and the rightness of our goals will bear success and achievement and, as you say, to reflect and act upon the responsibilities that, as a result, bind us together.



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    Beruriah

    posted December 16, 2005 at 8:40 pm


    I was quite surprised to read that Jews, by and large, are affluent insiders. I am Jewish, I support a family of 5 on about $30,000 per year. And I know other Jews who, like myself, are not affluent. I feel that giving gifts to the kids is my way of telling them they are as special as all the non-Jewish kids getting gifts this time of year. It isn’t about showing that I am wealthy.



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    Rev.Curt Atkinson Th.D D.Min A

    posted December 17, 2005 at 12:29 am


    Dear Rabbi: I, belief that many people in the Christian faith have forgotten the true meaning of Christmas, in the event that once was Holy and had meaning has now become a parade of money spending seeing who can buy the most and give the most without any true feeling of Charity from the heart, but a good social thing to do. The Jewish heartiage is so wonderful it is heart breaking to see a people with this background as God’s chosen people to betray such a time of the year and become socialy correct and Biblicaly in-corect. May the Jewish people of America wake up and look how they are allowing society to pull them into a false reason to ignore the most special time of the year, for the psoition of being like every one else.



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    Steven Micklin

    posted December 17, 2005 at 12:28 pm


    The commentary misses a few points, some of which touched upon by previous comments. First of all, we must realize that, as Jews, we are an oriental people living in a western society. As such, the Jews favor the power of wisdom, insight, learning, righteousness, etc. over the power of physical prowess. We come from the near east and, along with our arab cousins, tend to favor the learned (in their case the iman) or the wise and elderly (the shieks, warlords, etc.). In a similar vien, we jews tend to respect the learned rabbi, the sage, the elders of our “tribe”. The same is true for our brethern in the far east as well. The westerns, on the other hand, favor the greco-roman idea of physical beauty and prowess. Given the above, we tend to view ourselves, within this westeren world, as being a powerless minority. That is why we celebrate so vigorously the few jewish atheletes we see (compare to the idea of the Golem in Europe) and try to fit into our society by buying presents, big houses, etc. We also have the issue of the temporal nature of our existence in the west, being remove from homes throughout europe and often being displaced. In that we are much like our african-american brethern, favorinfg cadillacs and jewelry, portable items. When extended to society as a whole, we do not use our econimic power for much the same reason. We are powerless, nomadic folks with little power to change and hoping to keep “under the radar screen” so that the current “czar” will ignore us and not persecute us. The next fallacy, touched on by other commentators, is that the American jewish community is not as homeogeneous as indicated. That is, we are not all wealthy folks living either in the downtown condo or the house in the suburbs. And thank Hashem for that! The jewish community is a rich, beautiful community of many different kinds of people with varying financial and educational backgrounds. We are rich and poor, professional and laborers, learned and unlearned. And I hope we stay that way. While many of our “tribe” are economically successful, many jewish families struggle financially. Which leads me to my final point. Jews have been at the forefront of the social justice movement. Both here in the U.S. and abroad. The underpaid social worker, the civil rights worker/volunteer are all dominated by jews who often have risked even their lives for the betterment of their fellow man. Tikkun Olam is a proud concept of our people, it is one I try to keep myself – the grandson of socialist labor leaders and a social worker myself. While we will continue with conspicous consumption, just like our non-jewish countrymen, we can look toward a proud heritage of justice, begining with the Macabees (it is Hanukah) and continuing with the Southern Poverty Law Center and Joe Cohen.



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    HASH(0x212b1570)

    posted December 17, 2005 at 1:46 pm


    THe metaphor of Jews as Goliath in the artical is scarey, for as we all know it is David who wins and is honored in the finale senario, although I do understand what you are attemting to express. Unfortuately materialisim is the truth of our times. This does not mean that one need sacrifice ones spirituallity,but rather to thank Hashem for having and being able to share with those who have not. Thank younfor the reminder.



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    T. Joel Hansen

    posted December 17, 2005 at 6:51 pm


    Well said Judy. The austentatious waste that occurs during this season that which has no lasting value while children the world over starve continues to feed the fires of rebellion in many societies that we now describe as terrorism. While the poor will alwasy be among us, there is a reason that HaShem has placed them before us…to determine if we are worthy of being HaShem’s bankers. All things come to accountability eventually.



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    HASH(0x212b27d8)

    posted December 18, 2005 at 4:46 am


    Do you feel comfortable donating moneyh to various African causes, or the Red Cross or any of the myriad organizations that say they represent the poor and oppressed. After seeing so much bad press about the amount of help that actually gets through to the truely needy I am becoming vary wary and careful about where my charitable contributions go. I want to be sure that the charity actually does what it says. After all the money donated to Hurricane Katrina victims we see on TV the waste of Millions of dollars and the many families that have not been helped at all. And then again, where does charity end, and why are allowing building in places that we know are unsuitable? So many problems, so few solutions !



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    Jeff Wild

    posted December 18, 2005 at 1:10 pm


    In a recorded lecture from 1958-59 Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik z”tl commented on how for millenia the Jews were usually in a position of powerlessness and so could not “abuse” that power, as had many of the societies within which they had lived had. He raised this along side the question of how would the state of Israel use its power, now that it some. It seems to me that Rabbi Soloveitchik’s comments relates to Rabbi Stern’s comments about responsibilty of “insiders” and the responsibility of power.



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    Cheron G.

    posted December 18, 2005 at 4:55 pm


    There seem to be several falicies that are not only perpetuated in this article; but, also repeated in Jewish “society” in general. All of these misconceptions are harmful and destructive to not only Jewish identity, but, Judaism as a whole. Firstly, Jews are not Oriental or Asian as I recall we bred and flourished in Egypt which is in AFRICA before moving on to the land of Cannan which was also part of Africa in that day. It is odd that we somehow skip over that part of our history as we could not possible be from brown (and I don’t mean Arab) people!!! All too often when describing who we are as Jews, we simply forget that these brown African people travelled far and wide and bred with all sorts of locals to create the lanscape of Jews of all colors and cultures that we have today. For goodness sakes, lets start embracing our WHOLE heritage and where we come from as a people. Only when you know where you have been can you know where you are going. Secondly, this complete falicay that as a whole Jews are wealthy, which perpetuates that Jews are one race, and somehow just a sub-race of the ruling majority. NEWSFLASH: We are not all white, wealthy people of European decent. Third, on the topic of assimilation. For the person who wrote that she gives her children gifts this time of year because she wants them to feel as special as all the other children, I would submit that this is the worst form of assimilation. How in the world would a Jew not feel special EVERY DAY!!!????? Being special is not about a gift, it is about how you live each and every day! Let me tell you from experience that a trinket does not make a kid feel special and secure; time and attention is all you need for that. Long after that toy is broken and forgotten, the time and love you created as a family lives on. That is not to say that gifts can’t be wonderful, but they can be given at any time of year! Finally, as I recall, the thrust of Hanukkah is about anti-assimilation, as the story really does not have a “happy” ending. Wouldn’t the Macabees be devestated to see how we “celebrate” their ultimate sacrafice? Doesn’t Hashem repeat over and over, not to do as others do?????? How about saving what really matters which is our separateness as Jews. This is beyond the fact that both Jews and others seem to be completely ignorant of the origins of most of the “Holidays” that they celebrate. Most non-Jews buy into embracing a Pagan ritual marking the lunar cycle for some religious phenomenon, so too, we buy into the oil and lights story of Hanukkah. This amnesia makes it all too easy to forget who we really are as Jews. Perhaps formats like this will force us to remember.



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    shioian

    posted December 18, 2005 at 10:16 pm


    1st. – I respect and love all people. 2cd. – I always find it interesting that many people view themselves in certain ways that portray an air of superiority. 3rd. – Now in my sixties, I see hypocrisy common place and I find that I acquire more insight about humanity in a day care center. Any input, my Rabbi friend?



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    imma

    posted December 20, 2005 at 3:09 pm


    My husband is a hard working class, union steelworker, and most just a Jewish as anyone else. Thanks to those who posted that they are also Jews who are not in the top 10% – the rabbi’s comments just go to show you that power and wealth almost always corrupt – especially when even our learned teachers aren’t immune from it. The fat cats are more comfortable identifying by their social/economic caste systems than by their heritage or even their actions. I would warn Rabbi Stern to remember where he came from, and pay a little more attention at next year’s seder. On the subject of gift giving, giving your kids presents on the holidays helps them identify and remember it, especially if you give Jewish presents. One person suggested giving presents at any time, a cool idea, and it’s fun to surprise the kids with something special “just because”, but it can really hurt you to have to say no on the “short weeks” if your kids don’t have something almost tangible to look forward to, at least thankfully frequent Jewish holidays let us get through it by saying that it’s only a few more weeks until the next one, and the presents that will come with it.



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    Marian Neudel

    posted December 20, 2005 at 9:32 pm


    As a not-particularly affluent Hispanic Jewish woman, I have long resented the stereotype, held by the Jewish and Gentile establishments alike, that all Jews are male, white, anglo, and upper-middle-class. To some extent, the researchers have defined non-affluent Jews out of the Jewish community, by defining “Jewish” as “affiliated with one or more Jewish organization,” when affiliation can be prohibitively expensive. Nonetheless, the Jewish community has members who receive, as well as give, tzedakah.



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    A regular Jew

    posted December 21, 2005 at 3:19 pm


    As an Orthodox Jew, I am embarrassed by and completely reject Rabbi Stern’s views that, for most American Jews, Chanukah has become a time of year for presents, when we light some candles, and that, at Chanukah, most American Jewst revel in and reveal their power, success, and achievement. I can not believe that a Rabbi who holds those views would identify himself as a frum (orthodox) Jew. Although I would normally not hold by the views of either Conservative Rabbi Grossman or Reconstructionist Rabbi Waxman, I completely agree with their two statements, as follows: 1 – Xmas is beautiful but Chanukah is my holiday. We are a proud minority within a dominant culture and of which we do not need to be envious. Chanukah does not need to carry the weight of comparisons to xmas because it is one of a weekly,monthly, yearly parade of particularily Jewish celebrations, each joyful, holy, and special in its own way (Rabbi Grossman). 2 – Proudly proclaiming our identity, by lighting the menorah, we affirm that we are Jewish, that we are different, and that we can instill content and meaning into our Jewishness (Rabbi Waxman).



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    Venise

    posted December 21, 2005 at 7:35 pm


    As an American of Irish and Native American descent, I know full well the seductive appeal of feeling superior in one’s marginalization. However, let’s not forget one very traditionally Jewish precept: compassion and empathy. Let’s not start touting ourselves as Goliaths and forget what it feels like to be a David.



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