The 'December Dilemma'

For a friend of mine, the “December Dilemma” is whether to ski or snorkel.  But for many more in the Jewish community, the “December Dilemma” is how to respond to the onslaught of someone else’s culture permeating every nook and cranny of one’s life.  And this year Christmas and Chanukah overlap, which may accelerate the proclivity to compare.

We step outside and Christmas trees surround us; except on the Kol Ha-Emek radio show – Cantor Wartell’s Friday morning gift to our community on WMUH/91.7 FM, radios blares Christmas tunes in country, rock, classical and rap modes. The Creches commemorate the Christian story.  Stores are hyper stocked with Christmas decorations.  And Santa greets us at every shopping center. Many Jews begin to feel like visitors out of step with the “host” culture.

How should we respond to this annual reminder of our minority status, to these powerful signals that – by our history, our heritage, our peoplehood, and our religion – we are different?

One reaction is to assimilate – when in Rome, do like the Romans and when in America, do like the majority of Americans, at least in December.  Others like to compete – to fight fire with fire, or more precisely, Christmas with Chanukah. Adam Sandler helped a few years ago with his “Eight Crazy Nights” movie and his “Chanukah Song.” I even saw a Christmas-Chanukah chess set in a store.  Imagine the sense of satisfaction when one of the rabbinic-looking pieces knocks off a few of the three wise men pieces. We all fall prey to the power of eight nights over “their” single night. 

Frankly, both of these approaches are, in my view, misguided, and not (simply) because Chanukah can never hold a candle to Christmas.

It is not hard to admit that Jews are a minority living in the U.S. amongst a Christian minority. But it’s not a competition, either. Maybe it’s good that we feel a bit uncomfortable. Maybe our discomfort will make us appreciate more the fact that we have a rich Jewish heritage. And while we can appreciate our Christian neighbors’ holidays, we don’t have to feel bad about not celebrating them.

The best approach to the “December Dilemma” is to address it year-round. We are who we are. We are a minority, and that’s okay. We have a beautiful and meaningful heritage that should be allowed to permeate our lives each month and each day, not just for eight certain days in the winter. 

Chanukah has its charm; but it is, after all, a relatively minor Jewish holiday. 

Prominent Jewish educator Ron Wolfson, who has spoken several times in the Lehigh Valley, notes that a “We’re Jewish – we have Chanukah” response should only be the beginning of the response. The full answer should be “We’re Jewish, and we have Chanukah … Sukkot, Passover, Shavuot, Purim, Simchat Torah, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Lag B’Omer, Yom Ha’atzmaut, Tu B’shvat – and, most importantly, Shabbat every week.” The child who has experienced the building of a sukkah will not feel deprived of trimming a tree. The child who has participated in a meaningful Passover seder will not feel deprived of Christmas dinner. The child who has paraded with the Torah on Simchat Torah, planted trees at Tu B’shvat, graggered gregariously at Purim, and welcomed Shabbat weekly with candles and wine (grape juice) and challah by the time s/he is three years old will understand that to be Jewish is to be enriched by a calendar brimming with joyous celebration.

While Chanukah is a minor holiday, it carries with it a message we should take to heart.  The Maccabees’ struggle began as a struggle between Jews who took their religion seriously and Jews who were anxious to assimilate to the Hellenistic tendencies of the host culture. Rather than regard Chanukah as a celebration of religious liberty (the Maccabees certainly were not religious pluralists), we might better regard it as yet another reminder that Jewish continuity ultimately depends now, as it has before, on the purity of our faith, our ability to resist assimilation, and our capacity to allow Judaism to enrich our lives 12 months of the year.

When that occurs, the “December Dilemma” might well only be whether you spell it Chanukah, Chanukkah, Hanukkah, Hanuka or Channuka. 


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