Chanukah: The Evolution of Holidays

December 5, 2014

chanukkiahI love the way Jewish holidays change over the centuries to meet the challenges of history. Passover was once a sacrifice and a nighttime lamb BBQ with storytelling. Then we lost the Temple, and had to reinvent the celebration in the form of a Greek symposium banquet, the hottest educational technology of its time. They insured that it wouldn’t get too Greek (or, heaven forbid, Roman!) by taking the afikomen, the after dinner entertainment that often got out of hand, and reissuing it as a broken piece of matzah. Voilá: The Passover seder!

Chanukah lay dormant for centuries, a little festival with fried food and candles. The rabbis of old didn’t want us to make a big deal of it, because we might get the idea that making war on our oppressors was a good idea. They bequeathed us a miracle story and somewhere along the line we began playing dreidel. Then a series of events in the 19th and 20th centuries brought Jews new challenges. For one, after the Holocaust, never again would we dare deal with anti-Semitism by waiting for a miracle. The Maccabees gained new relevance in the shadow of the Shoah and with the foundation of the modern State of Israel. For another, while Christmas had never been any threat to Jewish culture, the 19th and 20th centuries saw the rise of a new festival: secular Christmas.

Christmas, too, had been a relatively minor affair for centuries. It was the feast of the birth of Jesus, layered on top of a popular Roman festival, Saturnalia. Then in the 19th century, British and American novelists and poets wrote about the holiday, recasting it as a holiday of family warmth, goodwill, and compassion, and downplaying the religious aspects. This began a process of popularizing Christmas. When business discovered that trees, decorations, presents and Christmas turkeys could set the cash register bells a-ringing, Christmas became big business. You can see the results in every shopping mall and city center. Devout Christians deplore the commercialization of Christmas (“put Christ back in Christmas!”) but secular Christmas has become a juggernaut.

Secular Christmas is now firmly planted in American popular culture, and it has spawned an entire season of frantic consumption. “Christmas comes but once a year” so there is pressure for it to be perfect, with no unmet desire, no unrequited fantasy. The tree must be brightly lit, the presents piled beneath, and if the credit cards get overloaded, well, it’s Christmas, after all!

 

And yes: I know there are families for whom secular Christmas is a time of warmth and light, who don’t max out their credit cards. I know that Christmas trees and Christmas mornings carry precious freight for many people: they are wrapped up with the fondest wishes for family love. I have no quarrel with them, for that is their tradition and it works for them. But it’s not the Jewish way of doing things.

We don’t have one big day in the year that must be perfect: even Passover, which probably comes the closest, happens over a week, and for most families, there are two seders to attend. We have Shabbat every week for family warmth and love, and for hospitality to strangers. If we really keep our full calendar of holidays, then we get a steady stream of small “Christmases” complete with Kodak moments. There are gifts of food to send at Purim, and a sukkah to decorate at Sukkot. There are festive meals again and again throughout the year. No holiday has to be perfect, because we have Shabbat every week.

In the 20th century in America, Chanukah has flirted with Christmas by experimenting with “Chanukah bushes” and adding gift-giving to the mix. When Chanukah tries to imitate Christmas, it loses both its Jewish character and the Jewish values deep within it. Chanukah at its best is about dedication to Jewish values and a resistance to idolatry, whether that idolatry is the worship of Zeus or the worship of consumer goodies.

Chanukah is equipped to challenge the darker aspects of secular Christmas. It is modest, where secular Christmas can be gaudy. It plays out over a week, instead of a single day that must be (and is seldom) “perfect.” Chanukah calls us to rededicate ourselves to Jewish values; secular Christmas pushes us to get the “best value.”

Chanukah is a big deal at our house, because it is pushback to secular consumer values, and most especially to the dark side of secular Christmas. We light the little menorah and say the blessings. We have an open house for our friends and the neighbors. We’re “advertising the miracle,” as it says in the Gemara, but the miracle we’re advertising is bigger than a jar of oil that lasted for eight days. We’re advertising the miracle that Judaism is still here, despite it all. And we’re dedicating ourselves to another year of living Jewishly.

We’re going to be doing something special for Chanukah at my home this year. More about that in the next post.


“I’d Like to Dedicate This…”

December 1, 2014

candlesChanukah means “dedication.” The holiday has that name because it recalls the re-dedication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem after the Maccabean Revolt. Today we don’t have a temple in Jerusalem. Ever since year 70 of the common era the primary locus for Jewish life is in our homes, which we refer to as a mikdash me’at, a little sanctuary.

From Thanksgiving until January 1 in the United States, this sense of home as sanctuary is heightened for many Jews. Out in the world, we are surrounded by “the holiday season.” That phrase can mean a number of things, including:

  • For observant Christians, it is a remembrance of the birth of Jesus, preceded for some by the penitential season of Advent. Obviously, that’s not a Jewish celebration. We can enjoy Handel’s Messiah or the neighbor’s lighted creche, but for us, Jesus was at most a gifted teacher, not the messiah.
  • For most Americans, it is a once-yearly season of parties, gift-giving and family gatherings. When students tell me, “I don’t see Christmas as a religious holiday,” I know they see Christmas as a once-a-year season of warm feelings and nostalgia.
  • For some Americans, it is a season of excess: shopping, eating, and drinking too much, borrowing too much, envying too much, building towards a massive hangover in January. All of those things are a problem in terms of Jewish values.
  • For some Jews, it can be the season of feeling crowded by other people’s holidays. Or it can be a season of feeling left out.

“Aw, rabbi!” I can hear some readers saying, “Are you going to be a party pooper?” That is not my intent. What I’d like to do is to encourage you to think clearly about what you are doing this “holiday season.” How and what you celebrate is ultimately up to you.

This is the first of several articles I’m going to post about the season and for now I shall leave you with a question:

When you light your menorah for Chanukah, what are you dedicating, and to what are you dedicating it?


A Tale of Two Grandmothers

October 19, 2014
My Two Grandmothers

My Two Grandmothers

A student asked me today, “What can I do, when both sets of grandparents go crazy with gift-giving in December? It’s as if it is a competition!”

The question set me to thinking about my grandmothers. Before I go any further, I want to be clear: I loved both my grandmothers and I know that they both loved me.

Due to circumstances, I didn’t get to see much of one grandmother. She traveled a lot, and sent me beautiful dolls from every place she visited. Those dolls enriched my life: I learned about other cultures, about climate and geography. I kept the dolls in a cabinet, and enjoyed looking at them and dreaming about all the places they represented.

I have only a few vivid memories of that grandmother. She hated waste (we’re alike that way) and she thought I should take French in high school (I took Spanish.) The conversations I remember best are from a train ride we took from Chicago to San Francisco. I remember that she taught me how to play canasta. She always kept ginger ale for children. Other than that, I don’t remember a great deal about her, which is really quite sad.

My other grandmother took me along on errands. I learned a lot of my values from her, just watching the way she treated people. I saw her give money to poor people when they asked for help. When there was an obituary in the paper about someone she vaguely knew, she’d say, “Get dressed up, we’re going to the funeral home!” She taught me the power of simply showing up.

She loved to drive a little (maybe a lot) too fast, but she taught me to drive after my father had given up in despair.  I still hear her voice when I have to wait a long time for a left turn: “Just wait, Punkin, the right opening will come. There’s no rush. You’re doing fine.”

She always told me what I was doing right; her silences told me what I was doing wrong. When I became an adolescent, she had a lot to be silent about, but she persisted in telling me when she was proud of me. The only painful memory I have of her was my own failure: when she was dying she tried to talk to me about death, but to my eternal regret, I changed the subject.

So this is what I told my student: If the grandparents want to compete, you can’t stop them. But remind them that the way to “win” the competition is with relationship: get to know your grandchildren. Let them get to know you. Share your values by example: don’t tell, show. Expensive gifts are not memories. Tell stories. Take them along.

My grandmothers died two months apart, in the spring and summer of 1974. One I remember faintly with fondness and gratitude; the other is key to the person I grew up to be, and I mourn her still.

The photos above are the only ones I have of either grandmother. Neither conveys their true beauty. 

 


Why I Don’t Have a Christmas Tree

December 25, 2013
christmas at home

This is not my house. (Photo credit: rzperllian)

My last Christmas tree was in about 1992, I think. My elder son asked me why we had one if we weren’t Christians. I had not identified as Christian for about seven years, and I decided he had a point. I never celebrated Christmas again in my home.

The kids did not seem to miss it. Their birthdays both fell right after Christmas, and they’d always been overshadowed by that other guy’s birthday. From that year onward, I focused on a big celebration of their birthdays.  They got presents, we had cake, and it was good.

So when I became a Jew, Christmas was easy: I’d not been observing the holiday for years. For me it had been a religious holiday, and once the religion dropped away, I discovered that we could enjoy other people’s decorations. When people asked about it usually Aaron would pipe up with, “We’re not Christians.”  My younger son enjoyed celebrating with Christian relatives, and that was fine too.

So when I discovered that some Jews have Christmas trees, I was a little confused. Why do something at considerable trouble and expense while insisting that it doesn’t mean anything? I’ve never completely figured out the answer to that one.

Now that I’m a Jew, I celebrate Chanukah. I like the idea of a festival of rededication, especially at a time of the year when Jewishness seems to disappear into the dazzling show. I don’t pay a lot of attention to the officious folk who sniff that it “isn’t a Torah holiday.” Partly that’s because they don’t act so sniffy at Purim, which isn’t a Torah holiday either. And partly it’s because I think there’s something in the human spirit that cries out for shining lights and gathering when the nights are long and longer.

I still love those bright shining lights, whether they are for Chanukah or Christmas. My neighborhood is full of lights, and I love them all. But my home is a Jewish home, and I can’t imagine putting up a symbol of someone else’s holiday. This is my mikdash me’at, my little sanctuary, and I work to make it bright and beautiful with Jewish symbols and customs, sweet and savory with Jewish smells.

Those are bright enough, sweet enough, and  warm enough: good enough for me!

 


The Jews of Christmas

December 25, 2013

My neighbor’s yard is amazing.

Christmas is here, in a very odd year. Chanukah’s so last month – no confusing the two!

And many Jews are gathered for a family party, because this is the day that all of them are off.

Some Jews are gathered with Christian relatives.

Some Jews are going to the movies, and out for Asian food (that’s what’s open, right?)

Some Jews are feeling awkward about all the “Merry Christmas” greetings, and some are not.

Some Jews have really been enjoying all the wild lights in their neighborhood (that’s me.)

Some Jews are glad they don’t have to clean up the mess afterwards (again, me!)

Some Jews are working, having traded the day with Christian co-workers; they’ll be off for synagogue next Rosh HaShanah.

Some Jews hope the rabbi doesn’t stop by.

Some Jews are feeling really conflicted about all of it.

Some Jews and many others are working today: cops, firefighters, EMTs, doctors, nurses, people at the power company, people working transit, clerks at the 7-11.  (Thank you!)

Some Jews are feeling left out.

Some Jews are ladling food at soup kitchens.

Most Jews and their neighbors wish for Peace on Earth, today and every day.

Because that’s the thing all of us can agree upon: there is too much hunger, too much poverty, too much war, too much disease, too much pain, too much sorrow, too much tsuris in the world today.

May the new secular year be a year in which we can find a way to work together against war, poverty, hunger, and pain.

Amen.

 

On March 31, 2014, I and a lot of other rabbis are going to participate in Shave for the Brave, our way of fighting pain in the new year. If you would like to participate in raising funds for pediatric cancer research, CLICK THIS LINK and help us! Even the smallest donations will combine to make a big difference in the lives of young cancer patients and their families with better and more effective treatments.


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