This week, Jews all over the world are observing Chanukah, the festival of lights. Menorahs are being lit, latkes are being frying, and dreidels are being spun by antsy children, bored at parties hosted by their parents. For all the joy and celebrating that accompanies this holiday, however, Chanukah stands apart from many other Jewish festivals. While it is a celebration actively embraced by many American Jews, it is of far less importance to Jews around the world compared to other religious holidays. It is so minor, in fact, that religious Jews work normal hours and don their regular weekday attire throughout the Chanukah period, something they do not do for most other Jewish holidays.
So why is Chanukah such a big deal in the United States? In a word: Christmas. Because of Christmas’s influence, Chanukah celebrations in America have lost much of their connection with the holiday’s historical roots. They have also become dominated by Ashkenazi traditions, while practices associated with Sephardic and Mizrahim celebrations of Chanukah have been marginalized. All in all, these trends point to a troubling reality in the United States, one where tolerance is seemingly meaningless and “diversity” is used to hide a continuing Christian bias.
Rewriting the History of Chanukkah
You do not have to be a Chanukah expert to know that its popularity in the United States has everything to do with timing. The Hebrew calendar is a lunar-solar one, in contrast to the solar Gregorian calendar, which is used by much of the West. Because of the moon’s influence, every year the timing for Jewish holidays shifts (though each festival always takes place during its proper season.) Chanukah typically falls in November or December, which makes it an incredibly convenient holiday for Jews living in majority-Christian nations. It is especially important for Jews in the United States, where Christmas has taken on an out-sized importance over the last century.
While Chanukah has never achieved the levels of excitement and enthusiasm enjoyed by Christmas, it has gradually increased in importance among Jews in the Western world. It was barely celebrated in the West until the nineteenth century, when a group of rabbis from the Reform Jewish movement in the United States began integrating Chanukah celebrations into their synagogues. Their motives were entirely attendance-based: younger Jews were praying less and less, and, the thinking went, Chanukah could help bring them back into the fold. At the time, Christmas was becoming a cultural phenomenon throughout the country. With a massive industrial boom taking place in the United States, people were increasingly clinging to family and tradition. Christmas was just the kind of parochial symbol that brought a sense of constancy, stability, and community into people’s lives. For Jews, Chanukah potentially presented an equivalent benefit.
Over the years, the connection between Christmas and Chanukah has become more pronounced, with Christmas traditions invading the Jewish holiday. Chanukah has absolutely no connection whatsoever to gift-giving, but, in an attempt to mollify young children jealous of their friends’ yearly present hauls, Jewish parents have sometimes given their children as many as one present for each night of the holiday. Eight presents, the thought process runs, will more than make up for all the stories Jewish children will bring home about their classmates’ grand (and expensive) Christmas gifts. There is also the “Hanukkah bush,” which is a direct response to the Christmas tree and has no connection to Jewish practice.
The (Actual) History of Chanukah
How Chanukah is practiced in the United States now has little to do with its origins. In reality, the holiday commemorates an incredibly violent chapter in Jewish history, which likely comes as a surprise to many people. In Biblical times, Judea was a hotly contested region in what is today the Levant. Under King Antiochus III, who ruled over the Seleucid Empire, Jews were able to practice their faith with some measure of peace. However, around 175 B.C., the king’s son, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, invaded Judea. Circumcision was banned, pigs (considered unclean by Jews) were sacrificed in sacred Jewish spaces, and alters to the Greek gods were erected. All of this prompted outrage from Jews, who were by all historical records incredibly zealous in their faith.
Over the course of the next few years, Jewish rage toward the king grew exponentially. The Maccabees (a variant on the Aramaic word for “hammer”) chased the Seleucids out of Judea, and liberated the region, as well as the Second Temple.* Legend holds that after reclaiming the Temple, the Maccabees found a small amount of oil used to light the room’s menorah. While the oil should have run out after one day, it lasted for eight nights, keeping the Temple lit and giving the Jews cause for celebration.
While this may or may not have actually happened (it most likely did not), the Chanukah menorah is lit for eight nights in commemoration of this story. Oil is also an important part of the holiday, as reflected in the many fried foods served during Chanukah.
The Ignored Diversity of Chanukah Celebrations
In the United States, common perceptions about Chanukah are heavily colored by Ashkenazi traditions. Ashkenazim, or Jews who trace their ethnicity to Eastern Europe, have become the face of Judaism in this country (as well as globally.) While their traditions have come to dominate Chanukah in America, Mizrahim and Sephardim (two Jewish ethnic groups that have roots in the Middle East and North Africa, as well as Spain) observe their own unique Chanukah traditions, as do other Jewish communities.
For example, while many Americans might assume that latkes (fried potato pancakes) are a core part of the holiday, they are in fact specific to Ashkenazim, as are (history indicates) the chocolate coins called gelt.
Sufganiyot, by contrast, are jelly-filled fried donuts more common in Sephardic and Mizrahi communities. Other delicious offerings from these Jewish traditions include sfenj (North African yeast donuts) and bimuelos (flour and yeast fritters or balls.) These foods are not generally sold in the “Hanukkah section” of American grocery stores, and few Americans have ever heard of them.
Diversity and Intolerance in the United States
Lack of awareness regarding Mizrahi and Sephardic foods or the history of Chanukah are all seemingly minor transgressions. But they do speak to a more important issue. American embrace of Chanukah has less to do with tolerance and diversity.
Chanukah has, in short, become a convenient excuse for state-sanctioned celebrations of Christmas. The National Menorah, for example, is frequently used as a defense for the existence of the National Christmas Tree. America’s public schools often use decorations featuring menorahs and Magen Davids to offset the Christmas tree and Santa Claus decorations already adorning the walls (this was certainly the case in my school.). While such additions are presented as nods to inclusivity, they often come across as forced attempts to downplay the importance of one tradition – the Christian tradition – above all others.
If “mainstream” (read: Anglo-Saxon, Christian) Americans truly wanted to celebrate Judaism, they would educate themselves about the High Holy Days, which are far more critical to the Jewish faith than Chanukah. They would also learn more about Pesach (Passover), and perhaps about Purim, the buoyant Jewish holiday with a feminist twist. That these celebrations are far less integrated into American perceptions – along with the many other non-Christian and non-Jewish holidays celebrated by people in this country – reinforces an unfortunate theme in the United States. For a diverse “nation of immigrants,” America has an incredibly difficult time divorcing itself from its Christian “roots.”
This fact is more than evident in contemporary events. Last week, a Muslim couple allegedly killed numerous people at a holiday party in San Bernadino, California. Rather than focusing on their crime, however, the mainstream U.S. media immediately honed in on their faith. Islamophobia has coated the newspaper, social media, and television coverage of the event. The incident has even been portrayed as a mini-“clash of civilizations.” One FOX news legal analyst, Peter Johnson Jr., referred to the incident as a “literal war on Christmas.”
Chanukah bushes and raging Islamophobia differ considerably, and should be addressed in very different ways. But for those of us in the United States who believe in an inclusive nation with a diverse population, issues like these should give us pause. Chanukah has become a popular alternative to Christmas, but American Jews, who were the target of 60% of all religious hate crimes in the United States in 2014, according to the FBI, remain a community apart. Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, and Buddhists are excluded as well, with their religious holidays barely registering a blip on the national consciousness.
None of this, of course, should diminish the value of celebrating Chanukah in the United States. Regardless of its somewhat violent and extremist roots, the holiday has become a beautiful celebration that brings Jews closer. But as intolerance in the United States reaches a breaking point, American Jews might want to reflect on how their own community is impacted by a society where one religious tradition continues to set the tone.
*Author note: If you want more information about this time, and Jewish history in general, I highly recommend Reza Aslan’s Zealot. What is primarily a historical documentation of the life of Jesus is also a fascinating look at the history of ancient Jewry, and of famed battles like the one Chanukah commemorates.