Magic Jewball

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Jew & A: Hannukah

Filed under : Jew & A,Judaism
On December 17, 2008
At 11:00 pm
Comments : 11

And now, for the promised explanation-rich Hannukah post, wherein I tell you everything you ever wanted to know about the holiday but were too busy putting up ornaments to ask.

Let’s start with some quick background before we get to the questions. Hannukah is an eight-day festival that celebrates the victory by a small band of Jews against larger Syrian-Greek forces who sought to conquer Israel in the 2nd century BCE. This is the popular history, and it’s accurate to a degree, but what isn’t usually discussed and what is vitally relevant to the struggles the Jews endure today, is that it wasn’t just a battle of military and territorial importance but also of spiritual and cultural hegemony. Not only did the foreign forces wish to bring the Jews over to their ways, but many Jews were already under the Hellenistic spell, and it was a victory over them as well. This is ironic in so many ways it would blow Alanis Morrisette’s mind.

When the invaders were gone, the temple in Jerusalem, which had been defiled, was rededicated. Sadly, there was only enough oil to light the menorah (menorahs were just the regular candelabras before Hannukah came along) for one day. But crazily, the oil lasted eight days! YaY, miracles!

So, the first question I received was from IrishCardinal and is actually several in one. I’ll begin there.
I’ve heard that Hanukkah, or however you wanna spell it, is a very minor holiday in the Jewish calendar. But since it’s close to Christmas, it has succumbed to a lot of hype and consumerism so as to compete with Christmas. You aren’t that old, Becca, but have you noticed a lot of changes in your lifetime in the way Hanukkah is marketed and celebrated? Like, do they sell big ugly sweaters with sequined menorahs and dreidels on them? I know for a fact they sell teddy bears that, if you press on their paw, they sing “I Have a Little Dreidel” and Stars of David on their feet light up.

Hahahahaha, that’s awesome. But I’m glad you worded your first lines that way because this is something that is a terribly large misconception, and understandably so. And it’s going to allow me to expound a lot on this topic and get up on my soapbox, so sorry about that! Not a lot of people, especially Jews, seem to know this, but you are absolutely correct, Hannukah is a minor holiday. How do we know this? It’s not in the Torah but arose in the period afterwards and we aren’t commanded by God to observe it. Thus, there aren’t the usual “holiday” rules about not working or using electricity, etc.

Christmas, as we all know, is the biggest Christian holiday there is. Coincidentally (or maybe not when you realize they’re probably both based on pagan Winter festivals), Christmas and Hannukah fall around the same time on the calendar. This has sort of turned Hannukah into something it is not. And what it has become, depending on how you look at it, is either “not Christmas, because I’m not Christian” or “Jewish Christmas.” I am not sure why this is so hard for many Jews to accept, but the Christians have Christmas and we don’t. There is no Jewish Christmas. There is Passover in the Spring and there is Rosh Hashanah in the Fall. But that’s as close as you’re going to get. There are no decorations except the menorah itself and that is supposed to be displayed prominently so as to “advertise” the miracle which happened to the Jews in their defeat of the enemy and having the oil last eight days.

Believe me, I understand the desire and hunger to do what everyone else is doing, to fit in, to belong, to put up fun decorations and get presents from Santa. But the answer is not to turn your holiday into someone else’s. That’s when you lose what is lovely and unique about your own. The other thing people do, and I’m more understanding of this, is to hold up Hannukah as an “I don’t celebrate Christmas!” shield. When I go to work and the lobby is decorated with a giant, fully decorated tree, with huge wreaths and red, green, and gold ribbon, and next to them is this little menorah, I get it. I get that what they are saying is, “we see you.” They know that not everyone celebrates Christmas and I appreciate that. I guess if you celebrate neither Christmas nor Hannukah you’re out of luck, though.

Recently, on a kitchen/decorating forum I have been going to (shut up!), people were showing off their Hannukah decorations. If you will, please imagine Christmas decorations except in blue and white (by the way, there are no Hannukah colors – blue and white are the colors of the Israeli flag and thus have become the de facto Hannukah colors). One person even had a Hannukah bush. This made me cringe. Show some pride! This is not your heritage; you have stolen someone else’s and passed it off. If you are so jealous of non-Jews, to my mind, just celebrate Christmas itself. Why go with an imitation?

This is the moment to remember the True Meaning of Hannukah. Ready? Drumroll…. we didn’t assimilate! Still want a Hannukah bush?

Personally, I love watching non-Jews celebrate Christmas. I love the trees and the lights and the magic and the movies and the music and the commercials and the spirit. I’m glad to be part of it as an observer.

This is not to say that Jewish holidays do not adjust to their surroundings. Originally, presents were not a Hannukah tradition, just gelt (more on that later). But, I’m not mad that we picked up this fine addition.

None of that was really for you, Irish. But you did have a question in there, didn’t you? Ooops. Anyway! Thank you for calling me not old. I almost missed that. I honestly do not see any more Hannukah marketing than there used to be but it may be because I have almost always lived in Jewish areas where it’s heavily marketed already. Thank God, no light up sweaters yet. The teddy bear sounds OK. I’ll take three.

I also think Hannukah is less prone to consumerism because before any presents are given, you light the menorah, say blessings, and sing hymns. So the spiritual is part and parcel of each evening.

Oh, and as for the spelling! There are many acceptable spellings since the Hebrew alphabet doesn’t always have corresponding letters in English. Hannukah comes from the word for dedication since the Temple was rededicated after its defilement. Thanks for letting me use your question for my own agenda! You’re a good sport. Unlike that Jonathan Papelbon.

Average Jane asks:
If it is truly our holiday that is the festival of lights, why didn’t we jump on that pretty-twinkly-light phenomenon way before Santa got his hands on them? Sooooo pretty. Sooooo twinkly.

So true. It is the Festival of Lights. We totally should have. However, I do love picking out the colors of candles each night. The first night that I have to repeat colors is such a drag. One year I’m going to find a box with enough colors to have nine different ones.

JennyPA asks:
What’s the significance of Hanukkah gelt and how did it turn into chocolate?

Gelt (Yiddish for money) is pocket change that it is traditional to give to children on Hannukah. One explanation is that it was a kind of bribe/reward to re-educate them in Judaism after the period of foreign influence. Another explanation is that it was the original alternative to gifts that non-Jewish neighbors gave to their children. Either way, the chocolate version is a modern invention and quite a delicious one, boy howdy.

Alex asks:
I think that this year, Christmas is on the 28th of Kislev. Why does it keep moving around?

Oh, Alex. You’re such a kidder. As everyone knows, the Jewish calendar is a lunar one which is why things fall differently on the secular schedule year to year. This year, of course, Hannukah begins at sunset on December 21st. As always, it also falls on 25 Kislev on the Jewish calendar. Christmas falls on “Jewish Family Day” or so my Yeshiva calendar used to call December 25th.

Sam asks:
Do I have to get the Jews in my life a present for each day, or can I get them each one present and bestow it on any day within the eight day window?

Have no fear! As I mentioned, presents are a recent innovation to the Hannukah celebration. So the answer is, everyone does it their own way. In my house growing up, each night was different. One night was “uncles & aunts night,” one was “grandparents night,” one was “book night,” one was “tchotchke night,” etc. But, unless you’re a member of the Kushner family or something, you probably end up with the same number and value of presents per capita as Christmas-celebrators do, just spread out. So, my answer would be, you can either get them eight small gifts, one on each night, or one regular gift given on any day in the eight day period.

Thanks for asking, everyone! Personally, I am hoping for a Law & Order DVD set after my hymn-singing. Also, world peace. In no particular order.

Styx – Lights