Well, it's Hanukkah time, again. As a reminder to try not to make too big a deal of it, so as not to ruin our holiday the way other, umm, holidays unnamed are often made into such a huge-honking production by certain unspecified people that their spirit is lost, I've reached into the vault for this reality check.
The first night of Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights, begins tonight at sundown.
As Jews in Chicago and throughout the world light candles and eat latkes — traditional potato pancakes — the question arises of how much fuss to make over Hanukkah, which is itself a minor holiday marking the victory of the Maccabees in 165 B.C. and the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem.
Are Jews, by singing Hanukkah songs, putting up Hanukkah decorations and giving Hanukkah presents, attempting to turn the holiday into a semitic Christmas?
"It's referred to as 'The December Dilemma' — what to do for Hanukkah?" said Susan Schaalman Youdovin, curator of education at the Spertus Museum. "About 20 to 30 years ago, Jews began feeling very pressured by their children to come up with something that would equal the spirit and fun of Christmas."
Hanukkah songs, commonly added to Christmas programs in public schools, are not a Jewish tradition, said Youdovin, but "a politically correct sop" for the consciences of those who want Christmas celebrations.
"If we preserved some semblance of the Jeffersonian separation between church and state, we would not sing Christmas songs — or Hanukkah songs — in public schools," she said.
Nor is gift-giving — beyond giving coins to children — part of Hanukkah, but rather a custom invented recently to curb envy in Jewish children.
"Gifts are not a traditional custom," said Rabbi Leonard Matanky, assistant superintendent of Associated Talmud Torahs, the central agency for Jewish education in metropolitan Chicago.
Children at the Bernard Zell Anshe Emet Day School on the North Side get help navigating the tricky area between the two holidays.
"We have many children whose families have two faiths, so we deal with both Christmas and Hanukkah," said Tzivia Garfinkel, associate head for Judaic studies at the school. "We emphasize that Hanukkah is not the Jewish version of Christmas. . . . We try to instill a sense of pride in what Hanukkah is and a sense of appreciation for what Christmas is."
Youdovin said that the key to keeping Hanukkah in perspective is to celebrate other, more important Jewish holidays to their fullest.
"Giving children a sense of joy in a strong Jewish identity is a year-round occupation," she said. "If you wait until December to deal with this, it's too late."
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, Dec. 5, 1996