Hanukkah is one of many Jewish holidays I've heard described collectively as "Someone tried to annihilate us. They couldn't. Let's eat." It's not even one of the most important festivals. But it is unique because its position in the calendar puts it in line for comparison with the biggest, most commercial holiday in the Christian year. As a result, many, perhaps most, American Jews suffer Christmas envy.
When I was a kid, it didn't bother me much. My parents noted that we got presents for eight days, compared with the one day that the Christians had. (The full 12 days of Christmas were fortunately not commonly celebrated among our suburban New York neighbors.) My relatives went out of their way to make the holiday fun and exciting.
Though we never had a tree or electric lights, my grandmother would often take my sister Kira and I to New York City to view the Rockefeller Center tree and the intricately decorated store windows. Each year, when we were young, my mom took us to the Nutcracker ballet at Lincoln Center. On the way home at night, we'd count the lights and see how many decorated buildings we could spot.
I remember distinctly the year I realized that the tree in the ballet didn't really grow inexplicably larger but simply emerged from a hole in the stage. Perhaps it was then that holiday magic, for me, went into decline. I was probably around 11.
As I grew up, I began to wonder about the meaning of Hanukkah. Christmas held numerous lessons about peace and love and giving--but Hanukkah began to seem almost militaristic. It celebrated victory in battle, and the main miracle--one day's worth of oil keeping the Temple's menorah lit for eight days--seemed pretty pale in comparison with a virgin birth marked by signs in the heavens. I felt guilty about my misgivings--and couldn't, like so many secular or mixed-marriage Jews, decide to celebrate the idea of Christmas with a tree or other symbols. It felt wrong.
When I left home for college, my religious life itself pretty much
ceased. I had been through a period of spiritual seeking with psychedelic drugs and an exploration of Buddhism, but I remained confused and questioning and unsure about my Judaism. I came home for the holidays, but it felt strange and perfunctory. My parents divorced, and celebrations became strained reminders of the split. Rather than anticipation, I began to feel dread. All the cards and trees and commercials with perfect families began to mock me and make me feel as though I was alone in my ambivalence.
And, in 12-step meetings, people often talked about the contrast between holiday expectations and reality. Many had families far more dysfunctional and unhappy than mine--and many never came to the reconciliation that I did as I moved away from drugs.
Still, while I knew other Jews in recovery, we were a small minority. 12-steppers talked about addiction as a threefold disease--physical, mental, and spiritual--and many joked that that also stood for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's (since holidays brought not only expectations that might be disappointed but temptation to relapse). The 12-steppers didn't mention Hanukkah.
One December, after a particularly Christmas-focused meeting held in a Christian prep school, I and several other Jewish recovering addicts stood outside discussing Christmas envy. There were Christmas trees and lights everywhere, and one guy said he wished there was something to remind us of our holiday.
Just then, we heard a loud burst of Hanukkah music. We looked up and saw several cars topped with giant menorahs coming toward us. Inside were groups of Lubavitcher Jews who were tossing menorahs and candles to everyone who reached for them.
We laughed and caught them in the cold air and discussed the spiritual nature of coincidence. I went home and lit mine and thought about how small acts of kindness can change lives. As I sang the blessing over the candles, I felt peaceful and calm. It's OK to celebrate survival, I thought. And even better to bring that light and hope to others.