Standing in front of a group of public-school students, I asked with my all-knowing teacher voice: “who knows why we celebrate Chanukah?” A young girl yelled out immediately: “because we are Jewish!”. While I was thinking of the Maccabees, the miracle of the oil lasting for eight days, and celebrating our victory over the Greeks, I realized she was right, and I was wrong. We celebrate Chanukah because we are Jewish, and that is the only reason we do so.
The Jewish people have seen so many miracles in our history, have overcome so many troubles and tribulations, and have long lost the military gains made during the time of Chanukah. Why do we still celebrate? It is because we are Jewish. We celebrate Chanukah because we are Jewish, and are Jewish because we celebrate Chanukah. The miracle of Chanukah took place at a time our religious distinction faced an existential threat. For the first time in our history, culture did not just tempt us from the outside, as idol-worshiping cultures have prior to then, but a culture came and threatened to consume us from the inside. This culture would replace our Torah with the study of Philosophy, the focus on purity with the focus on materialism, and our universalistic yearning for the Kingdom of Heaven, with a universalistic outlook that diminishes our uniqueness. And so, we celebrate Chanukah. It reminds us we are Jewish and being Jewish is different. It is unique and cannot be confused for something else.
Many rabbis and thinkers have strongly opposed what some call “the Christmasification of Hanukkah” and the way in which Chanukah is transformed into something similar to Christmas. In his article titled: “Taking the Christmas out of Hanukah,” Joseph Abramowitz argues the following:
For the sake of both Judaism and Christianity, American Jews must draw a line in the spiritual snow. The danger to both Judaism and Christianity comes from the rabid materialism of the United States, where the commercialization of our winter holidays has transformed and bastardized both.
Unlike many religious Christians who have thrown their hands up and accepted that the growing commercialization is inevitable, Jews know that a small group of zealots with a worthy mission can miraculously overcome great odds. This is, after all, what the Hanukkah story is about.”
Giving some real examples of what he is talking about, Abramowitz continues:
“Now Disney has launched Mickey Mouse dreidels and Winnie the Pooh Hanukkah menorahs. My first reaction is to roll my eyes and point to this as evidence that American Judaism is going down the tubes. But upon further reflection, there may be a brighter side to all the public recognition that Hanukkah is receiving. If we can embrace the image of Mickey spinning the dreidel without spending hundreds of dollars on Disney gifts, perhaps we can truly balance the normalization of public Judaism with our own meaningful values.”
I would like to argue otherwise.
If there is one thing Chanukah is about, it is about difference. Chanukah is about our ability to be different despite larger cultures trying to swallow us up. Ideally, we should not have to look over our shoulders. We should never have to be concerned about influences that can change who we are or be influenced by other religions. Sadly, that is not the case. Had it been the case, we would never have Chanukah. Chanukah is a holiday that emerges from conflict, from the real fear that we could have disappeared. Chanukah is the celebration of our ability to be different, even as a minority. And so, it is a huge blessing to see that children who often feel overrun by Christmas and New Year’s celebration have something to turn to Chanukah. It is beautiful to see children who might feel envious of the gifts their non-Jewish neighbors are getting feeling lucky that they can get gifts for eight nights.
Some years ago, I had the privilege of partaking at a Chanukah party with Rabbi Reuven Feinstein, son of the legendary rabbi Moses Feinstein. The rabbi, who ascribes to an ultra-orthodox school of thought and lifestyle, spoke of the significance of Chanukah to Jewish identity. “When you see someone who has on their front lawn a huge lit Happy Chanukah bear, you may think he is just trying to be like his non-Jewish neighbor and also have his holiday decorations. What is in fact happening is that this man has looked up and down his block, seen only Christmas decorations and decided to show them he is different. He is making a statement letting everyone know he is Jewish.” That is the essence of Chanukah. In a way, the kids I met who are celebrating Chanukah while they are in public school in the heart of Manhattan, are doing so to a fuller extent than orthodox children in Israel are.
Chanukah is about being Jewish. It is about looking at a very different world in the eye and daring to be Jewish. Chanukah is about looking the most dominant cultures the world has ever seen straight in the eyes and saying: I am different. Would it be nice if we didn’t have those challenges and can celebrate in a way that is wholly focused on who we are as Jews? Sure. But if that was true to the enth degree, we wouldn’t need Chanukah to begin in the first place. As I heard once from the dean and Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin, Rabbi Aharon Schachter, “Chanukah is a Yom Tov of Galut” (well, he did say “Golus”…). Chanukah is about the very unlikely situation in which a small and weak minority can maintain its identity and remain true to who they are. This is why I am thankful to a public-school student in New York who taught me what it is all about. “We celebrate Chanukah because we are Jewish!”