How the Xmas spirit touched Chanu­cah

Next week’s fes­ti­val is about re­ject­ing as­sim­i­la­tion. But some worry that sea­sonal con­sumerism car­ries too much sway

The Jewish Chronicle - - JUDAISM - BY SI­MON ROCKER

THERE IS A short story by Nathan Eng­lan­der about a Brook­lyn Chasid who has a sea­sonal job for a few weeks ev­ery win­ter — as a de­part­ment-store Santa. Yitzhak Kringle has qualms about the po­si­tion, but he needs the money, and his beard fits the bill. One day, a rather sad-look­ing boy is ush­ered to­ward him by the elves. “So, nu?” asks Santa. The boy is per­suaded to di­vulge his shop­ping list: moun­tain bike, ac­tion fig­ures, com­puter games. There is some­thing else, but he hesitates. “Come on,” says Santa. “Out with it.” “A meno­rah,” says the boy. Eng­lan­der’s tale (we will not give away the end­ing) plays with the cul­tural col­li­sions that have be­come part and par­cel of di­as­pora life around this time of year. Chanu­cah is a fes­ti­val with a pow­er­ful anti-as­sim­i­la­tion theme — the Jewish re­volt against the Assyr­ian oc­cu­piers in the 2nd cen­tury BCE rep­re­sents the re­fusal to sur­ren­der to an alien cul­ture.

But mod­ern-day Chanu­cah is not im­mune to out­side in­flu­ences. The Chanu­cah gifts, cards — not to men­tion the odd Chanu­cah bush — can turn the fes­ti­val into a kind of Christ­mas-lite. True, there are no Mac­cabee grot­tos in Brent Cross. But Rabbi Zvi Solomons, of Princes Road Syn­a­gogue, Liver­pool, has “heard of some­one dress­ing up as Fa­ther Chanu­cah to give out presents”.

Above all, the fes­ti­val risks get­ting sucked into the swell of sea­sonal con­sumerism, so that the fo­cus is on the gifts chil­dren ex­pect to be show­ered with rather than the mes­sage be­hind the can­dles burn­ing bright against the win­ter night.

The rab­bis went out of their way to en­hance the fes­ti­val’s spir­i­tual na­ture, play­ing down the Mac­cabees’ mil­i­tary hero­ism and in­stead dwelling on the mir­a­cle of the one day’s oil in the Tem­ple that lasted for eight. Next week’s haf­tarah from Zechariah, read on Shab­bat Chanu­cah, con­tains one of the most fa­mous of prophetic sound­bites: “Not by My might, nor by My power, but by My spirit, says the Lord…”

In fact, there is no prece­dent at all for Chanu­cah gifts in classical rab­binic sources. “The cus­tom… fairly ob­vi­ously, has been in­tro­duced so that chil­dren would not feel up­set if they are left out of the giv­ing of presents to their Chris­tian friends, “ writes Rabbi Louis Ja­cobs in The Jewish Re­li­gion: A Com­pan­ion.

The Talmud refers to dis­pens­ing money to the poor to buy can­dles, and later it be­came the prac­tice to give chil­dren Chanu­cah gelt. The choco­late coins of­ten handed out also re­call a sym­bol of in­de­pen­dence en­joyed by the newly lib­er­ated Jews of an­cient times — they were able to mint their own coins.

Nowa­days, rab­bis tend to take a prag­matic view of gift-giv­ing. “It’s not hugely dif­fer­ent from the Seder, you do what it takes to get the kids on board,” says Rabbi Reuben Liv­ing­stone of Hamp­stead Gar­den Sub­urb Syn­a­gogue in Lon­don. “It’s tol­er­a­ble as long as the mes­sages of Chanu­cah don’t get lost.”

Even the sa­cred walls of Stam­ford Hill have been breached. Chaya Spitz, a mother of four who works for the Ortho­dox char­ity In­ter­link, says that some chil­dren do get presents. “In a fam­ily of four chil­dren, the boys might get a train-set to share, the girls a doll or toy pram be­tween them. A grand­par­ent might also give some­thing for the fam­ily.”

But she adds: “It is not a must. I don’t think that if kids aren’t given a gift, they’ll feel de­prived… When I get an in­sight into what [non-Jewish] peo­ple spend on Christ­mas, I never fail to be stunned.”

One way to dif­fer­en­ti­ate Chanu­cah from Christ­mas, which has be­come more com­mon in re­cent years, is to give chil­dren a small gift on each of the eight nights. This is what Rabbi Solomons does for his three chil­dren. The gifts are in­ex­pen­sive su­per­mar­ket knick-knacks, he stresses, but his wife Shira feels that even this goes too far.

Not ev­ery child will ac­cept that small is beau­ti­ful. “There is so much pres­sure from all the ad­ver­tis­ing,” says Suzy Glaskie from Manch­ester. “I know a lot of mums who try to hold out but it’s dif­fi­cult.”

But she has done some­thing to ar­rest the grasp of ma­te­ri­al­ism. Six years ago she and Ju­dith Mo­ry­oussef, a fel­low par­ent at North Cheshire Jewish Pri­mary School, launched a char­ity, the Big Birth­day Ap­peal. They were trou­bled by the amount of money be­ing spent on birth­day presents for chil­dren too young to ap­pre­ci­ate them. In­stead they be­lieved that birth­days could be bet­ter used to pro­mote the im­por­tance of char­ity.

So now they mar­ket a range of prod­ucts such as birth­day stick­ers which you can at­tach to gifts rather than spend­ing money on cards, while the pro­ceeds go to good causes. They even take their mes­sage “to have a bit less and give some to oth­ers” to kinder­gartens. “You need to get chil­dren very young. If you give them to chance to help chil­dren who are less for­tu­nate, they re­ally em­brace it,” she says.

As with birth­days, so with Chanu­cah. “As a child, I still re­mem­ber each Chanu­cah present I got be­cause I ap­pre­ci­ated it,” says Mrs Glaskie. “Now they are so over­whelmed with presents they have lost the art of ap­pre­ci­at­ing what they are given. You have seven- or eight-year-olds who are be­ing given mo­bile phones and iPods. Where do you go from there?” she says. “If you spoil chil­dren, they are never go­ing to de­velop into thought­ful, char­i­ta­ble peo­ple.”

Last week, thou­sands were raised for char­ity at two Big Birth­day Ap­peal Chanu­cah gift fairs in Manch­ester. “All the left-over toys go to the chil­dren’s hospi­tal to make sure that the kids have toys for Christ­mas,” says Mrs Glaskie. “We of­ten take chil­dren to visit at the hospi­tal. It’s im­por­tant for them to learn to share with oth­ers. They of­ten live in a bub­ble, it’s not on their radar that not all chil­dren are as happy or as lucky as them.”

Mean­while, at North Cheshire Pri­mary, head teacher Norma Mas­sel en­deav­ours to in­sert “strong mes­sages about the mir­a­cle of Chanu­cah, Jewish con­ti­nu­ity and re­sist­ing as­sim­i­la­tion” into the Chanu­cah show she writes ev­ery year. “This year, it is about a meno­rah that goes with a child on the Kin­der­trans­port and how it goes through the gen­er­a­tions, from the Sec­ond World War to the mod­ern day.”

Schools, of course, play an im­por­tant role in trans­mit­ting Jewish val­ues — the word Chanu­cah is linked to the He­brew for ed­u­ca­tion, chin­uch. But what mat­ters most is the ex­am­ple at home.

“My grand­mother told me that what made Chanu­cah mean­ing­ful was play­ing with a lit­tle pile of nuts and a drei­del,” re­flects Rabbi Mark Gold­smith of Lon­don’s North-West­ern Re­form Syn­a­gogue. “This was in the East End [of Lon­don]. It was all about play­ing with friends in the street, even when it was cold, not about a com­mer­cial clone of Christ­mas.

“Last year we recorded a Chanu­cah pod­cast at the syn­a­gogue and we in­ter­viewed par­ents and chil­dren. What I found in­ter­est­ing is that none of the chil­dren — who do have quite a lot of pos­ses­sions and I sus­pect presents do fig­ure large — men­tioned presents as the thing that was im­por­tant to them at Chanu­cah. What they spoke about is be­ing with the peo­ple they cared about.

“I feel the big­gest gift we can give to chil­dren is time. We live such pres­sured lives to give chil­dren the pos­ses­sions we feel they need that we de­prive them of time with them. One thing that Jewish rit­ual can do is to re­quire us to spend time with oth­ers.”

One of the syn­a­gogue’s ac­tiv­i­ties is a se­ries of can­dle-light­ing cer­e­monies in con­gre­gants’ homes across Lon­don open to ev­ery­one, with the sim­ple plea to “put in your diary and make sure to be there”.

For Rabbi Solomons, too, the ad­vice to par­ents is to “make a point of al­ways light­ing the can­dles to­gether as a fam­ily”, sing the songs and tell the story of the fes­ti­val — and only af­ter­wards dis­trib­ute presents. “Turn the lights off, look at the can­dles and re­mind your chil­dren that we are still here as Jews be­cause of what the Mac­cabees did. If the re­li­gious side comes first, then you are giv­ing the right mes­sage.”

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