Hanukkah was once a minor holiday, a playful reminder of miracles that cast a warming light against the winter darkness. The game of dreidel was an innocent sort of gambling pleasure: an easy way to teach children that chance is beyond cajoling, that you win or lose, double or nothing, depending on the breath in the draft, the knot in the wooden floor, the unseen, the unaccounted for, the ever unpredictable. The game reveals to all that miracles may happen, but they may not, so steel your heart for disappointments.
Hanukkah was not designed for its contemporary American fate. Here, it goes nose to nose, Maccabee to Jesus, against the Christmas glory. It has become a kind of echo of the Other, a comfort to the Jewish child who does not share in the red and green and tinsel of the rival holiday. This making much of Hanukkah is a wise adaptation, a bending like the willow in the wind, as a small minority fights to hold the hearts of its children in the overwhelming and most enticing surrounding culture of Santa Claus and Rudolph and the Grinch, as well as “Silent Night” and “Good King Wenceslas” and “All though the house, not a creature was stirring ….” No matter what one does with the brave freedom fighters of old Jerusalem, they do not quite equal the pageantry of mangers and little drummer boys as God’s own son is born to save the world from death. There is no contest here, because the story of Hanukkah is not the central story of Jewish belief or life, while the story of Christmas is the most basic matter of Christian belief. You could remove Hanukkah from the Jewish calendar and Judaism would barely notice. Do the same for Christmas and the entire religious structure would collapse. These holidays are simply not symmetrical. No amount of chocolate coins and electric menorahs illuminating the lobbies of Manhattan apartment buildings will make it so. Yes, they are both winter tales meant to promise the return of spring. Yes, they are both about the intervention of God in human affairs. But they are not equal, and pretending so will not wash.
Secularists can celebrate one or the other, or, as in many of today’s homes, both, since everyone needs a holiday, a tradition or two to keep despair from the hearth, a celebration to prompt connection and reinforce tribal unity (or dual tribal loyalty). But Hanukkah was not meant to carry Jewish identity and central religious meaning, and I for one feel a little silly carrying home my blue-and-white Hanukkah paper, which I have picked out of a sea of red-and-green rolls. I would prefer Hanukkah in February. I am now very clear that as a Jewish woman, my holiday is not Christmas, as much as I wish friends well and enjoy the music and the color that it brings. I am also clear that Jewish identity in America still gets the December shakes. I suspect that will always be so.
Saying this is not to denigrate the loveliness of the menorah, the candles burning, casting their reflection upon the window pane. This column is not meant in any way to be disrespectful of the family gatherings, the presents exchanged, the perfect taste of latke and applesauce, such as we have in our house. And it is important that Jewish families can paste the dreidel made in nursery school on the front door in place of a wreath. And it is important that Jewish families remember that the battle for dignity and nationhood has been long, and that moments of success and great triumph, resistance and heroism have been ours amid the tragedies. But despite the fact that salespeople in Saks and Bloomingdale’s will avoid saying “Merry Christmas” and wish their customers “Happy Holidays” instead, the joy of Hanukkah is bittersweet. The victory preceded defeat. A heartbeat of history away, exile is on the horizon. The miracle of the oil that burned eight days is much appreciated as a sign of God’s presence in our journey, but it is not exactly the equivalent of a virgin birth that signals salvation.
I had been raised with a Christmas tree, as had many other Jewish people in the 1940’s and 50’s. Then, there were no Hanukkah cards in the stores or menorahs in public places. Now, many more Jewish families announce their identity with a menorah on their table. In the long run, this will help preserve the Jewish voice in America and allow our contributions to the culture at large to continue in the years ahead.
But the menorah itself is not quite the right symbol for Jewish identity. I feel this especially this year, as we see the warrior Sharon defending the streets of Jerusalem and Haifa with guns and bombs, and as we see–grasping the arms of our chairs with anxiety–that the battle for the promised land is still not over (how many millennia will it require?), and that the settlement building and the occupation of the West Bank has created exactly the situation some of us on the peace side, on the Labor Party side, predicted 20 years ago. It’s a situation that may have no solution, one that turns the Jewish people into tyrants and occupiers and the Palestinians into suicide bombers whose mothers have no hope for their children but heaven.
Yes, the blame falls on the Palestinians for missing the last moment for compromise, but the blame also falls on the Israelis responsible for the doubling of the numbers of the settlers in the years since Oslo. Arafat and Sharon, two blind men, are pushing each other over the cliff, thinking only the other one will fall.
It is hard this year to fully appreciate the Maccabees, unless perhaps you are Palestinian, fighting in the hills against the better armed invaders. Nationalism itself seems such a bitter affair. Bloodshed may well produce heroes, but it has its blind, dumb, cruel, blockheaded side. (A nagging voice in my head asks if the circumstances had been other, would the Maccabees have taken to suicide bombing?) Today’s news from Jerusalem is grim. I am glad it was reclaimed then and now, but the miracle we need has not yet come, and it seems beyond our human capacity to create it ourselves. Peace Now has turned into Peace Never, and lighting the menorah this year is not so much an act of sweetness and light as it is a sign of resolution to fight on. Maccabee every one of us, willing or not.
The affairs in Israel make Jewish identity in America even more crucial to Jewish survival. By that I don’t mean we need bigger numbers to give money to the Jewish organizations that are pounding on our President to support the right wing in Israel. They have enough as it is. Those Americans, defenders of other people’s right to die, dedicated to transfer or endless occupation, are hurting, not helping, matters. I mean the rest of Jewish America, who will raise our voices in the interests of peace and justice for both Jews and Palestinians, and in the course of time continue our Jewish life in America: Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, gefilte fish, bagels, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Woody Allen and their younger versions, and the professors, scientists and entrepreneurs, the chicken soup with matzo balls, Passover, bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings, mezuzas, making the small contributions to human culture that those in the Diaspora have always made.
This year, perhaps, instead of the menorah representing simply the gift of burning oil in the midst of war, I will think of the candles in the past and in the future, providing light for poets and novelists, for philosophers and scientists, in gulags and ghettos, in the midst of exile, on the edges of frontiers, to continue working through the darkness of human history.