Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Hanukkah songs "a politically correct sop."

     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


  1. Xmas has little to do with Christmas. Xmas can be celebrated by people of any faith. It is about Santa Claus and his helpers bringing gifts to good little girls and boys. Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Christ. It is the biggest holy day in Christian religions because had he not been born, there would be no Christmas or Christianity. Putting up a tree, decorating, baking cookies, visiting relatives, and exchanging gifts are all part of Xmas and should be celebrated, IMHO.

    1. "It is the biggest holy day in Christian religions..." Depends on what one's definition of "biggest holy day" is. Easter is the holiest day of the year for most Christians. The impression that Christmas is "bigger" has to do with the secular aspect referred to, and the triumph of marketing.

    2. I'm not going to quibble about that. My response was about the issue of celebrating what started out as a Christian holy day but has now become a secular holiday. I don't see anything wrong with it. As for the Jewish holy days, I think if families talk about them and mark them throughout the year, the Hanukkah celebration can be quite meaningful and can stand alone.

  2. As Paul Ryan said to his Jewish friends, "Molotov".

  3. Jakash is right - I'd add that many fundamentalists (a more complex lot than many in the media present them as), while not anti-Christmas, go out of their way to note its history as a competition for the winter pagan holiday ( much like Hanukkah in the U.S. today is offered) and that the best evidence points to Jesus having a summer, not winter, birth.


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