Season's Greetings! It's Christmas time again, and in effect, it's also the time when Jews feel the most un-American. But! it's also soon to be Chanukah, a holiday that commemorates the independence and preservation of the Jewish people from the assimilating force of Hellenism. How odd I find it that the two holidays juxtapose one another... On one hand, our gentile neighbors are celebrating universalism and neighborliness while us Jews are celebrating our fierce desire to remain culturally distinct and apart from the social mainstream. People question whether or not Jesus was really born on Christmas; maybe Jews should question whether or not Chanukah really happened on the 25th of Kislev as well because maybe the rabbis decided to commemorate the Maccabees victory over the Greeks and the restoration of the Temple just to contrast the two holidays (this point is made facetiously).
Over the last half-century, I believe there has been a movement to "CHRISTmas-ize" Chanukah as much as possible. We, Jews, like it because we feel less left out of the "Season," and Christians like it because we, Jews, are indirectly included in their spiritual celebration, getting us one step closer to finally accepting Jesus. Ultimately, instead of being the Christmas season, it becomes the "Holiday" season - a season for everyone! - and every man, woman, and child, Jewish or Gentile, starts patterning their lives in the same way, engaged in a search for gifts and holiday preparations. Meanwhile, while Jews are out shopping for Chanukah gifts for their Jewish friends and family, they also buy Christmas gifts, partly out of guilt and partly out of love, for their non-Jewish friends so that they know that they are not forgotten and un-loved on their favorite holiday; it's at this point, however, where the separation between Chanukah and Christmas dissolves and any claim to the contrary is nothing but a delusion. Do you think if Jews did not give gifts on Chanukah that we would go out of our way to get gifts for gentiles on Christmas? ...it's possible, but definitely to a much smaller degree than what occurs today, I think. And is it just me, or is it a bit annoying, that my non-Jewish friends only know of one Jewish holiday, Chanukah, and only remember to wish me a happy holiday once a year, for Chanukah, one of the least important Jewish holidays of the year? In the end, businesses make a lot of money, and Jews have sold a piece of their soul away for some gifts.
Today's Jewish youth face existential threats to their Jewish identity in every facet of their existence. If you are thinking this is going to start being a lecture on Jewish-only dating, I promise you it is not, but I need to raise the issue of the difficultly of maintaining one's Jewish identity in an overwhelming, non-Jewish society, that in many ways causes us to compromise our distinction on a near daily basis in the context of Chanukah. Because I am "Jew-ish," I have to make a fuss when my friends want to order a pepperoni pizza and then receive the butt-end of their ensuing frustration at my "ridiculous" eating restrictions, and because I am "Jew-ish," I am unable to date anyone I want without lots of baggage and guilt both from my parents and from my romantic interest who feels she is being shut-out, and because I am "Jew-ish," I can't just easily plug into any popular, social ideology that forces me to compromise my Jewish beliefs. "What would Jesus do?" is a question I'll never ask myself seriously, but it is a serious question that the majority of people in America ask themselves multiple times a day. As a Jew, I am always going to be on the outside, and these sacrifices are made all the more difficult by the fact that I am not even sure that I believe in G-d, which leads me to wonder if this struggle is in vain. Nevertheless, as my personal life gets more entrenched within the non-Jewish population, it gets harder to fight back assimilation because being successful socially often means going with the flow.
In this light, the importance of Chanukah increases for me, the typical American Jew. Because the Maccabees fought, ultimately, to preserve our people from the forces of assimilation and a twisted, universal concept of humanity that demanded conformity in the name of oneness. At this time of year, especially, we need to re-affirm and strengthen our distinct identities, not dissolve them. From what I can see, there are many parallels, between the fight of the Maccabees and the struggle of the modern Jew. According to the thinking of the time, Hellenism represented "social evolution," "liberalism," "enlightenment," and the promise of "world peace" by tearing down the differences that divide us. I don't mean to imply that any of those ideals are anathema to Judaism; however, the dark side of Hellenism was that this "new humanity," this new model for human behavior and thinking, was quintessentially Greek and shunned the maintenance of cultural distinction. So too, as I see it, is the new "enlightened liberalism" of our modern day, which, like the Greeks, takes up issue with Judaism's wish to remain distinct, true to its traditions, and apart from the greater world. Moreover, other social vectors are collapsing on this situation. The Christian mentality, of loving your enemy and turning the other cheek brings about unmerited criticism of Israel's military defense of its borders and its population; in addition, Westerners who devalue cultural institutions and envision a world without borders or distinctions inappropriately categorize Israel as an apartheid state and Judaism as a racist religion. Therefore, as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict increasingly plunges the world towards the possibility of a global, nuclear confrontation, it is becoming less easy for many non-Jewish people to tolerate Israel's wish to remain distinct and Jewish.
Size in numbers and regional expanse has always been the pride and glory of other religions while Judaism's main focus, through the millenium, has been on preserving its tiny family. In a dog-eat-dog world, where might often makes right, it's very easy for the "little guy" to get squashed by the "big guy," but miraculously, our people has survived not just assimilating forces but poverty, wars, genocide, forced expultions, and other civil rights abuses as well. Being part of the "Chosen People" definitely comes with a lot of inherent prestige, merited or not; however, for those who incorrectly conclude that not being one of "The Chosen" means that they are further from grace and inherently delinquent in the eyes of G-d, it is easy to direct their enmity towards Jews and Judaism, wishing to see it destroyed in order to preserve their self-importance and personal world-view. In the "iron furnace" of Egypt, our people was created and in the cauldron of adversity, our people survived against incredible odds.
In generations past, it could have been so easy for any Jew to escape their oppressed plight and convert, but they faced every attack to their existence out of a sense of pride, strength, and a deep need to pass on something greater than themselves. Thus, in the end, I cannot stress enough how important it is for Jews to preserve the Jewish integrity of Chanukah because it is on this holiday that we commemorate and honor our daily struggle to preserve our heritage and stand-up for our beliefs against those who are made insecure by those who are different and see our Jewish identity as an obstacle to be overcome. Sure, I understand giving gifts is a great way to spread the joy of Chanukah and fits so well with the holiday's spirit, and if it didn't come around Christmas time, I would be all for it; however, on the one Jewish holiday, where we celebrate, especially, the distinction between Jew and Gentile, I think it is only right that our actions, from a bird's eye view and an inner-eye view as well, don't make that separation too hard to see. As a secular Jew, myself, engaged in a constant struggle with the belief in G-d and my Jewish identity, there is no other Jewish holiday at this point in my life where I find more personal meaning and connection to than Chanukah, so please, this year, it is my suggestion that we give no gifts, put up no Chanukah lights around the edges of our house, and bring no Chanukah bushes into our homes either....Just light a few candles and reflect on the miracle of our survival in a world of complexities and contradictions, and REMEMBER, they tried to kill us, we won, let's eat!!!!
I will be following up this essay on a review of Rabbi Gershon Winkler's book, "Travels with a Rabble-Rousing Renegade Rabbi" and a discussion on what it means to be "Jew-ishhh."