Jokes aside, for two thousand years Jews have been ascribing differing meanings and symbolisms to this holiday. Is it a celebration of liberation from an encroaching Greek foreign power, or is it a celebration of religious rejection of creeping cultural secularism? Is the miracle a military victory, or the extension of a small quantity of sacred oil for multiple days?
Yes. To all of these answers and more. Because Hanukah, a post-biblical holiday without a Temple rite of its own or a commanded observance from the time of Moses, a holiday that doesn’t even get its own book in the Talmud, is more pliable for the rabbis and the cultural interpreters of our people through the centuries. So each of us draws our own meaning from this holiday.
If you’re on Jewish twitter you know that the New York Times recently published a column – written by someone who was raised in the church and who does not self-identify as Jewish – rejecting the celebration of this tradition because it didn’t feel “authentic” to celebrate a Jewish “religious” event. The backlash on #Jwitter was voluminous and warranted. I’m fairly certain that my Christian friends would be rightly offended if I wrote a piece about how Easter lacks authenticity for me, and a major newspaper justified the publication because some of my cousins are Catholic and I’ve occasionally attended a mass out of curiosity or friendship.
One response that I appreciated was from AJC, which invited people to share #WhatHanukkahMeanstoMe. As I consider that question, I am reminded of one aspect of this holiday, about which there is broad consensus in Jewish circles: It is just not that big a deal for us.
Now, I don’t want to be the Grinch that stole Chanukka. I enjoy this holiday tremendously. But as suggested above, it just does not rise to the category of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot, the trio of festivals that mark our calendar and our understanding of our experience in the Sinai. It is not the high holy days or Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur. It isn’t even Purim, which gets its own book in the Torah.
Some Jewish communities, like that of Ethiopian heritage – having already lived apart from most Jewish centers of population prior to the creation of this relatively new (barely 2,200 year-old) Jewish tradition – don’t even celebrate Chanuqa.
The simple truth is that Chanukkah has been elevated far beyond its place in the Jewish cycle only recently – largely in North America and other places where we Jews have predominantly achieved full acceptance within nations that are defined by our Western, and Christian, Civilization. It is a credit to our status of belonging as Americans, and to our yearning not to be excluded, that in the midst of a season that is deeply significant to Christian civilization, we – and American consumer culture – have elevated this minor holiday. It’s a statement of belonging that we can gather as families, exchange gifts (not a historical tradition of this holiday), have our own (quite delightful – thank you Daveed Diggs!) Disney Holiday seasonal songs, and broadly be in the seasonal spirit, without being forced to convert (as was true in the past) or to celebrate the birth of another faith community’s messiah. I think it’s great that, even as our nation’s culture is defined by its heritage within Christian civilization (with December 25th as a national holiday), we as Jews get to be part of this national culture without abdicating our own civilization’s heritage and traditions.
So, this Hannukah, like every other year, I get to revel in two aspects of my identity and heritage simultaneously. I get to celebrate a piece of Jewish tradition that has meaning because it has been passed down by our ancestors for two thousand years, and I get to enjoy the holiday season and wish my cousins and friends a Merry Christmas without being made to feel excluded from our shared American heritage.
This week I’ll light my menorah, spin my dreidels, wear my holiday socks, eat some latkes and Bimuelos, and be grateful to be both Jewish and American.
I’d love to hear what Chanukka means to you.
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom and a Happy Chanukah!