What Hanukkah’s por­trayal in pop cul­ture means to Jews in US

Centre Daily Times - - Opinion - BY TED MERWIN Ted Merwin is as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of re­li­gion, Dick­in­son Col­lege.

When I was grow­ing up in sub­ur­ban New York, Hanukkah was not grounded in re­li­gious ob­ser­vance. Hav­ing no clue that there are tra­di­tional He­brew bless­ings that ac­com­pany the kin­dling of the Hanukkah can­dles, we in­vented our own wishes, awk­wardly voiced out loud, for hap­pi­ness and peace.

Then again, the fes­ti­val of Hanukkah de­mands the per­for­mance of fewer re­li­gious rit­u­als than most other Jewish ob­ser­vances. Af­ter all, the hol­i­day is never men­tioned in the Bi­ble, since the events that it com­mem­o­rates oc­curred hun­dreds of years af­ter the Bi­ble was writ­ten.

To­day, this mi­nor fes­ti­val of Hanukkah has be­come su­per­sized into a Jewish ver­sion of Christ­mas – a time for fam­ily gath­er­ings, gift-giv­ing and fes­tiv­ity. But it is through pop cul­ture that Jews have found their own iden­tity, in which they can take pride.

The true story of Hanukkah is of a con­flict be­tween two dif­fer­ent groups of Jews – those who were ea­ger to be­come part of the Hel­lenis­tic cul­ture rep­re­sented by the Syr­ian-Greeks against a band of zealots called the Mac­cabees, who sought to main­tain Jewish rites.

To­day, in the U.S., how­ever, only 15 per­cent of Amer­i­can Jews view their Jewish iden­tity as rooted in re­li­gion. And for many Amer­i­can Jews, as­pects of Hanukkah that are most at­trac­tive tend to be those that mir­ror what many other Amer­i­cans are do­ing at this time of year – such as cel­e­brat­ing Christ­mas.

As some economists have pointed out, Hanukkah is the only Jewish hol­i­day that is cel­e­brated much more widely among Amer­i­can Jews who have chil­dren. No­tably, Jews who live in Chris­tian-ma­jor­ity ar­eas end up spend­ing more on Hanukkah gifts than those who re­side in mostly Jewish neigh­bor­hoods. By con­trast, Hanukkah in Is­rael is not as sig­nif­i­cant.

None­the­less, Amer­i­can Jews have carved out a place for Hanukkah in pop cul­ture.

Jewish co­me­di­ans over the last few decades have mined hu­mor from the need that Jews have to feel that their mi­nor­ity iden­tity is still a mean­ing­ful and salient one, even while pok­ing gen­tle fun at Christ­mas.

An ex­am­ple is that of co­me­dian Jon Lovitz’s Hanukkah Harry pre­miered on “Satur­day Night Live” in 1989. As a gray-bearded, ul­tra­Ortho­dox Jewish char­ac­ter, Hanukkah Harry 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.

Some schol­ars sug­gest that be­fore mak­ing Hanukkah into an es­sen­tially non-re­li­gious cel­e­bra­tion, Jews had al­ready “sec­u­lar­ized” Christ­mas.

Mu­sic scholar David Lehman, for ex­am­ple, writes that Christ­mas “be­came a sec­u­lar hol­i­day” thanks to the ef­forts of com­poser Irv­ing Ber­lin, a Rus­sian Jewish im­mi­grant whose “White Christ­mas” uni­fied Amer­i­cans dur­ing the Sec­ond World War. Its lyrics about “sleigh bells in the snow” ap­pealed to com­mon feel­ings of nos­tal­gia to­ward hearth and home.

In­deed, a new doc­u­men­tary from Cana­dian film­maker Larry We­in­stein also shows the role of Jewish song­writ­ers in re-cre­at­ing Christ­mas as a sec­u­lar hol­i­day. The ma­jor­ity of iconic Christ­mas car­ols, from “The Christ­mas Song,” about chest­nuts roast­ing on an open fire, to “Sil­ver Bells,” were writ­ten by Jews. Th­ese songs deem­pha­sized the re­li­gious as­pects of the hol­i­day and turned it into a cel­e­bra­tion of cold weather, fam­ily and sim­ple plea­sures.

In the end, the con­tem­po­rary cel­e­bra­tion of Hanukkah does not tend to 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 will cel­e­brate the hol­i­day with my wife and chil­dren by light­ing the meno­rah and chant­ing the He­brew bless­ings – which I fi­nally learned. The real high­light, how­ever, will not be the re­li­gious as­pects, which are pretty thin, but the gus­ta­tory plea­sure of the thick, siz­zling potato latkes, wait­ing to be cov­ered with sour cream or ap­ple­sauce.

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