Hol­i­day’s heft is in Amer­ica

Albany Times Union - - FAITH & VALUES - By Ted Merwin Ted Merwin, a Dick­in­son Col­lege pro­fes­sor of re­li­gion and Ju­daic stud­ies, wrote this col­umn for The Con­ver­sa­tion. ▶

For me, grow­ing up in sub­ur­ban New York, Hanukkah was not grounded in re­li­gious ob­ser­vance. With no clue that there are tra­di­tional He­brew bless­ings for light­ing the hol­i­day can­dles, we in­vented our own wishes for hap­pi­ness and peace.

The eight-day Fes­ti­val of Lights, which con­cludes Mon­day night, re­quires fewer re­li­gious rit­u­als than most other Jewish ob­ser­vances, and the hol­i­day is not men­tioned in the Bi­ble be­cause the events it com­mem­o­rates oc­curred hun­dreds of years af­ter the Bi­ble was writ­ten.

The Hanukkah story is about a con­flict be­tween two dif­fer­ent groups of Jews — those who were ea­ger to be­come part of the Hel­lenis­tic cul­ture rep­re­sented by the Syr­ian-greeks and the Mac­cabees, a band of zealots who sought to main­tain Jewish rites.

To­day only 15 per­cent of Amer­i­can Jews view their Jewish iden­tity as rooted in re­li­gion, and for many, the as­pects of Hanukkah that are most at­trac­tive mir­ror what many other Amer­i­cans are do­ing at this time of year — cel­e­brat­ing Christ­mas.

Hanukkah is the only Jewish hol­i­day that is cel­e­brated more widely among Jews in the United States who have chil­dren. No­tably, those who live in Chris­tian ma­jor­ity ar­eas, spend more on Hanukkah gifts than those who re­side in mostly Jewish neigh­bor­hoods. By con­trast, Hanukkah in Is­rael is not as sig­nif­i­cant.

Amer­i­can Jews have carved out a place for Hanukkah in pop cul­ture. See­ing their own group de­picted in pop cul­ture was a source of pride for Amer­i­can Jews through­out the last cen­tury. In re­cent decades Jewish co­me­di­ans have mined hu­mor from Jews’ need to feel their mi­nor­ity iden­tity is still a mean­ing­ful and salient one, even while pok­ing gen­tle fun at Christ­mas.

On “Satur­day Night Live,” Jon Lovitz’s Hanukkah Harry pre­miered in 1989 when the gray­bearded, ul­tra-or­tho­dox Jewish char­ac­ter fills in for an ail­ing Santa to de­liver presents on Christ­mas Eve only to face dis­ap­point­ment from Chris­tian chil­dren when they re­ceive choco­late coins and drei­dels, a Hanukkah spin­ning top, which seem pal­try and for­eign to them.

Adam San­dler first per­formed his “Hanukkah Song” in 1994, re­mind­ing Jews that they have their own hol­i­day in which they can take pride. “When you feel like the only kid in town with­out a Christ­mas tree,” the song be­gins, “here’s a list of peo­ple who are Jewish just like you and me.” It in­cludes celebri­ties who are at least partly Jewish in an­ces­try.

The con­tem­po­rary cel­e­bra­tion of Hanukkah does not hinge on the need to re­claim a dis­tinc­tive re­li­gious prac­tice. In­stead, it cen­ters on re­cap­tur­ing a sense of con­nec­tion to other Jews. This Hanukkah, I am cel­e­brat­ing it with my wife and chil­dren by light­ing the meno­rah and chant­ing the He­brew bless­ings — which I fi­nally learned.

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