The News-Times

Hanukkah isn’t ‘Jewish Christmas.’ Don’t treat it that way.

- By Stephanie Butnick, Liel Liebovitz and Mark Oppenheime­r Stephanie Butnick, Liel Liebovitz and Mark Oppenheime­r are the hosts of the podcast “Unorthodox” and the authors of “The Newish Jewish Encycloped­ia: From Abraham to Zabar’s and Everything in Betwee

‘Tis the season to be jolly, which means that retailers everywhere are breaking out their best seasonal wares, whether it’s ugly Christmas sweaters or mammoth Rudolphs for your front lawn. Traditiona­lly, we American Jews have looked at these rites of commerce with an air of bemusement, grateful that our wintertime holiday required nothing more complicate­d than a small and tasteful menorah. But lately, the ghost of Christmas commerce is haunting us, too.

On a recent trip to a large retailer, we spotted the following abominatio­ns: a festive tray featuring four minuscule bearded dudes, their hats decorated with dreidels, above the phrase “Rollin’ With My Gnomies”; a throw pillow, in the blue-andwhite color scheme of the Israeli flag, stitched with the phrase “Oy to the World”; an assortment of elves, sporting Jewish stars and looking like they belonged more in a Brooklyn yeshiva than anywhere near the North Pole; and a set of three kitchen towels with the truly baffling wording, “Peace Love & Latkes.”

We have absolutely nothing against the practice of cultural appropriat­ion. We’re guilty of it ourselves: Pick up any Jewish cookbook, and you’ll see traces of the spices and herbs we picked up from different parts of the world before once again getting expelled. We’ve also shared with the world our own cultural assets, like monotheism and Natalie Portman. It makes us kvell when something profoundly and fundamenta­lly Jewish gets embraced by the world at large. Nothing makes us happier than, say, strolling through the airport in Boise and seeing a bagel shop with a distinctly Jewish name selling a jalapeño bacon bagel with reduced fat salsa schmear — it’s our gift to America. Y’all are welcome.

But weird bagels are one thing. Hanukkah becoming Christmas is another.

The holiday we celebrate more or less around the same time as the Yuletide isn’t “the Jewish Christmas.” In terms of the holiest days on the Jewish calendar, it wouldn’t even crack the top five. Hanukkah doesn’t hold a candle to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in the fall or Passover in the spring. It’s neither a fast nor an epic feast. Its proximity to Christmas is probably the most marketable aspect of Hanukkah, a holiday specifical­ly designed not to appeal to the masses.

Hanukkah, after all, is a commemorat­ion of an ancient uprising by a band of bearded zealots, the Maccabees, who took arms not only against the oppressive Greeks — but also against their fellow Jews who happily assimilate­d into the cosmopolit­an culture of the day. Sure, the holiday has taken on a few embellishm­ents over the years, like eight nights of presents, concession­s to make sure our kinderlach don’t feel left out when you-know-who comes sliding down the chimney. But at its core, Hanukkah is about celebratin­g our Jewish particular­ity, relishing our difference­s from the wider world. The commercial­ized Christmas creep, the repackagin­g of Hanukkah to fit the gingerbrea­d cookie cutter mold, is precisely the sort of stuff those Maccabees were fighting. The entire point of Hanukkah is that it’s not Christmas.

These days, of course, commerce may not be the only motivation for merchants hawking Christmas-y Hanukkah wares. Some of the marketing (and the Hallmark movies) seems to be attempting a sort of cultural sensitivit­y, an inclusivit­y, the kind that leads people to say “Happy Holidays.” But what we Jews want is respect for particular­ity — yours, and ours. That’s why we’ll gladly wish you a “Merry Christmas,” and even partake in the occasional eggnog. We celebrate difference and appreciate public displays of religiosit­y. So wish us a “Happy Hanukkah” (if we’re being honest, “merry” does sound, well, goyish). Don’t assume we’ll be offended because we’re a minority. We love having our own thing. And we don’t suffer from stocking stuffer envy. We appreciate nothing more than someone taking a moment to learn about our tradition, so if you drop a line about the Maccabees or the miracle of the little tin of oil that lasted eight nights, we promise you a latke.

And when we say “our tradition,” we really mean “our traditions.” Jews all celebrate the same core holiday, but those of us who hail from the Middle East, say, have holiday treats of their own, and Ethiopian Jews have traditions they’ve been carrying for centuries, and all of them make the holiday, and Judaism itself, that much more beautifull­y diverse. We’re not all Ashkenazi Jews straight out of the eastern European shtetl — just another reason items like the “Dancing Bubbe,” a stereotypi­cal Yiddishe mama doll from the makers of the Mensch on a Bench, who squawks in a “Jewish” accent and shakes her booty when you press a button, are so disappoint­ing. We come in all colors, and our difference­s only make what we have in common more profound, as is the case in any warm and loving family.

But finally, and most urgently, this plea: Enough with the Christmas-y looking Hanukkah swag. We beg of you. Keep the elves and the jollies and the funny caps. We don’t need them in our holiday. No Jew has ever gazed longingly at a 12-foot inflatable reindeer and wished in her heart she had an equally large Moses to display in front of her house. And if we want an outfit to wear on special occasions, all we have to do is reach into the closet and pull out our tallis, or prayer shawl. Unusual garments, we’ve got. Accessorie­s, too. Just wait until you see our tefillin.

So, friends, a very merry Christmas from us to you. And may this year bring us nothing more than an abundance of blessings and a dearth of hideous cheap tchotchkes.

Keep the elves and the jollies and the funny caps. We don’t need them in our holiday.

 ?? Christian Abraham / Hearst Connecticu­t Media ?? The Chabad Jewish Center of Milford-Hebrew Congregati­on of Woodmont holds its Menorah Lighting on the Milford Green in Milford in 2019.
Christian Abraham / Hearst Connecticu­t Media The Chabad Jewish Center of Milford-Hebrew Congregati­on of Woodmont holds its Menorah Lighting on the Milford Green in Milford in 2019.

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