December 18, 2018

December Dilemma: Distorting Chanukah


At Temple Beth Hillel, Mark Singer teaches his third-grade Hebrew school class about Chanukah using all the usual props: he lights a menorah, spins a dreidel and throws a doughnut and latke party.

However, considering that anywhere from 25 to 100 percent of his students come from mixed marriages, one thing he does not emphasize too strongly is that the real message of the Maccabean victory is a staunchly anti-assimilationist one. Instead, Singer adamantly informs his class that Chanukah celebrations should not be blended with celebrations of that other holiday of the same season.

“I think that [Chanukah bushes, etc.] demeans both holidays and detracts from both holidays,” said Singer, who has been teaching Hebrew school for 35 years.

Welcome to Chanukah and the December Dilemma. In Hebrew schools all over Los Angeles — and in temple discussion groups for intermarrieds on how to survive the holiday season — Chanukah is taught as a ritually dense Jewish substitute for Christmas that needs to elbow its way into some December shelf space, rather than a holiday that commemorates a group of Jews fighting against the forces of Hellenistic secularism to remain an insular, Torah-committed community.

It is ironic that Chanukah and its accompanying symbols — the menorah, dreidel and latke — are the most recognizable Jewish icons in America today, yet the holiday’s meaning is distorted by nuance to accommodate an audience where secularism is de rigueur.

It is not that Chanukah is denuded of its religious significance — if anything, in these Hebrew schools, Chanukah is taught as a religious holiday where practice and ritual are of paramount importance, but the deeper meaning of the holiday, while not censored, is glossed over.

“We teach how to observe the holiday, and we teach about the stories and the song, and the other issues [of anti-assimilation] are separate from that,” said Rabbi Morley Feinstein of University Synagogue, who runs a Coffee and Conversation group for interfaith families and families where the partners have different degrees of observance. “Sometimes those issues come up, but they are best dealt with in a one-on-one private moment, because no family situation is exactly like any other.”

“My impression is that the anti-assimilation message has been ‘translated’ into a contemporary American message,” said Dr. David Ackerman, director of educational services for the Bureau of Jewish Education in Los Angeles. “Certainly, the [non-Orthodox] movements have clearly staked out a position that says you can be Jewish, participate in a full, religious and ritual life and still enjoy the benefits of a modern American identity.”

“I think schools in which there are high percentages of intermarriage focus on the importance of heritage, while acknowledging — even if doing so tacitly — the possibility of dual cultural membership [American and Jewish],” Ackerman continued. “While it sort of sidesteps the issue of a household with two religious faiths, it’s a way to talk about Chanukah that can be ‘heard’ by constituents.”

Unlike other Jewish holidays, such as Sukkot, Pesach or Shavuot for which there is no non-Jewish counterpart, Chanukah now has to acknowledge its splashier Christian contemporary.

“We make a big distinction between Christmas and Chanukah, and we suggest to our families that Chanukah is for Jews and Christmas is for Christians,” said Rabbi Bruce Raff, education director at Temple Judea, which has 1,100 children in its Hebrew school.

Thus, in many of the schools and the discussion groups for intermarried couples, the question becomes how can we celebrate Chanukah in a society where Christmas prevails.

Arlene Chernow, regional director of outreach and synagogue community for the Union of Reform Judaism, runs discussion groups with interfaith families on navigating the December Dilemma. Chernow said she advises people on where they can purchase Chanukah cookie cutters so that they can transfer their Christmas cookie recipe into Chanukah cookies. She also helps them battle their way through the thorny question of whether to wrap presents in Christmas or Chanukah wrapping paper.

“I suggest that the most important thing is that if you want grandparents to give presents in Chanukah paper, then it is really important to explain to the grandparents that this is what you would like,” Chernow said. “They need to talk to their parents and their partner’s parents and work it out so that nobody is offended, and figure it out so that it doesn’t become an issue. I don’t want wrapping presents to become hurtful.”

Chernow said that she counsels people on how to use Chanukah to create “warm, happy, family time.”

“People feel inadequate, because they don’t know what to do, and they don’t know the story themselves,” Chernow said. “I think the way to help parents make it meaningful is to let them know how to celebrate, how to play dreidl, how to light the menorah. I don’t think the idea [of anti-assimilation] really becomes an issue.”

A recently released survey conducted by shows that the emphasis on ritual could be paying off. In a survey of 199 interfaith families, 99 percent of them lit the menorah in their home, whereas only 53 percent had a decorated Christmas tree. In addition, approximately 65 percent of the respondents said their Chanukah celebrations were more religious than secular, whereas 75 percent said their Christmas celebrations were more secular than religious.

But the point of Chanukah is that Jews should not be living in a society where there is a dilemma — in other words, Chanukah is about being so sure about one’s heritage that the other holiday is just a green blip on the horizon and not a force to be reckoned with.

“There are certain contradictions that aren’t going to pan out,” said Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, Project Next Step director. “I don’t think people should stop trying, and anything that leads to positive effect to children in Judaism is going to pay off, but there comes a point where you have so changed the essential message of Chanukah that it no longer resembles the original thing. It does disturb me quite a bit that the price we have paid in America of trying to popularize Chanukah comes at the cost of its original message.”