In the Suburbs / Hanukkah is beautiful, even without a tree
I was both amused and disappointed this past weekend by author Michael David Lukas’ (“The Last Watchman of Old Cairo”) New York Times op-ed piece, “The Hypocrisy of Hanukkah.”
Lukas’ 3-year-old daughter had asked him whether the family could celebrate Christmas and he explained, “We don’t celebrate Christmas. We celebrate Hanukkah.”
Lukas didn’t mention his daughter’s reaction to that explanation, but went on to say, “Like generations of Jewish parents before me, I did my best to sell her on the relative merits of Hanukkah. True, Christmas might have those sparkly trees ornaments and fruitcake. But we have latkes (potato pancakes), jelly doughnuts and eight nights of presents.”
When Lukas’ daughter asked whether Jews have Santa Claus, he said that we don’t and tried to resell the idea of the doughnuts and the eight days of presents. She remained crestfallen.
But I became really disappointed when this young Jewish dad “caved in” in print and said that he couldn’t blame his daughter, because most of the Jewish holidays “are like special bonus celebrations we get to have on top of everything else going on in the calendar.”
“Most of the year,” Lukas said, “it isn’t hard for our family to feel both American and Jewish.”
After reading that our Jewish holidays during the year are just a bonus, I had to ask myself, “Is Purim with its delicious hamantaschen and noisy groggers and stories about Haman, the evil prime minister, who was trying to do away with beautiful Queen Esther,” just some bonus holiday? Is Passover with its special family seders, delicious meals and valuable story of freedom from slavery yet another bonus celebration? I don’t think so.
Lukas adds, in so many words, that in December, “when there are wreaths and Peppa Pig Christmas specials and inflatable Santas everywhere you look — that dual identity becomes more of a question.” He says that is why Hanukkah is a big deal.
Then Lukas finally gets real about this Festival of Lights of ours called Hanukkah and refers to the holiday as an afterthought for most of the past 2,000 years and calls it “an eight-night celebration of religious fundamentalism and violence.” Never once in the entire piece does he explain the real meaning of Hanukkah — dedication or rededication of the second Temple of Jerusalem.
And he considers the miracle of the oil, which burned for eight days instead of one day after the Maccabees — Jewish guerilla warriors who conquered the Hellenist Greeks and recaptured the second temple, discovered it in the desecrated sanctuary — to be “one of God’s least impressive miracles.”
What I also found disappointing about Lukas’ piece, as a Jewish dad who raised two daughters, was that he didn’t seize the moment with his daughter to grab a family menorah and a dreidel or two and show her how beautiful this holiday can be. We celebrated every year by lighting the candles with our girls, spinning the dreidel and playing a dreidel game with the letters — Nun, Gimel, Hey, Shin, which means A Great Miracle Happened Here.
We brought them to Hanukkah parties and we surrounded ourselves with friends, who brought their menorahs and came for dinner and made our living room glow with the light of the holiday. And we gave the girls one or two large gifts — not eight — and we still do that.
Yes, we enjoy the holiday of Christmas and we tried to take the girls to see Santa Claus at the mall. But my wife and I never blamed our Jewish heritage for depriving our daughters of a Christmas tree and all the trimmings. Instead, we have loved and shared our Hanukkah celebrations with our non-Jewish friends and always accepted their invitations to help decorate their trees and bake cookies.
And we never called Hanukkah the Jewish Christmas or bought a tree and called it a Hanukkah bush, because neither of those things are true.
Lukas does acknowledge that the holiday has evolved into a kind of Semitic sidekick for Christmas, and pointed out that the Hanukkah he grew up with included “presents, chocolate gelt (money); latkes with sour cream and applesauce; a few somber, off-key songs that no one fully remembered.” Then he trotted off to the public library with his daughter to find a stack of books about the holiday.
My greatest hope is that Lukas was able to make a Hanukkah connection for his daughter that helped to bring this beautiful holiday to life, even without Santa Claus. As for our family, we’ll continue to dedicate ourselves to helping others and being better people in the coming year. That’s the real essence of Hanukkah.
Steven Gaynes is a Fairfield writer, and his “In the Suburbs” appears each Friday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.