February 26, 2020

Should Chanukah in Israel be more commercialized?

I have a confession to make. (Well, maybe “confession” isn’t exactly the best word to use.) Forgive me, Jewish mother, for I have sinned. When I was 8, I hid a plant in my closet. No one knew about it — not my sisters, not my parents. It was my makeshift Christmas tree. 
Yes, even as I attended a Modern Orthodox day school in Los Angeles, I had a case of “Christmas envy.” I even made a pendant of a cross I carved out of aluminum foil. The only person who knew about it was my all-American, blond-haired, blue-eyed Christian neighbor. She seemed to live a freer life, without kosher and Shabbat restrictions. 
Granted, I had no idea what Christmas celebrated or that the cross symbolized the crucifixion of a Jew whose life and death ushered in a religion that, in its dark days, oppressed my kin. I only knew that Christmas was a season of joy, of miracles, of goodwill toward all. I loved seeing snazzy Christmas trees in stores and watching the “Growing Pains” and “Who’s the Boss?” Christmas specials. 
But wait a minute — don’t we also have a holiday all about lights, blessings and miracles?
Even though we lit Chanukah candles at my house, it wasn’t the same. We couldn’t hang baubles and twigs on a chanukiah.
“Goyim” didn’t have to say brachot over a Christmas tree at a specific hour — they snuggled around an evergreen with chestnuts roasting on an open fire. There are only so many latkes you can fry on an open stove, and eight oily nights could never really compensate for that one night of Christmas spectacular-ness. Even I sensed that Chanukah gifts were a lame answer to Christmas envy. Chocolate coins made me feel like a pauper.
We didn’t have TV shows inspired by the Chanukah miracle. The few Chanukah tunes I learned were sung by Jewish choirs, not by the biggest stars on the planet. I remember how thrilled I was when Adam Sandler’s “Hannukah Song” came out, but it was just Jewish celebrity geography put to melody.
I’ve come a long way since all that envy possessed me. More than 10 years ago, I turned in my eggnog lattes and fulfilled the ultimate Jewish calling of aliyah. In Israel, the descendants of the Maccabees would be the majority. Yay! Chanukah sales! TV shows about that Chanukah miracle next door! Original pop songs about light — sung in Hebrew! 
But that Chanukah pop-culture glory never came. Chanukah is a week away, and only in the last days have I noticed some flimsy neon-blue lights wrapped around the palm trees lining my Tel Aviv street. While public institutions are starting to display life-sized chanukiyot, they’re never like that gargantuan, glorious Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center. The only nationwide cultural Chanukah event of note is the “Festigal” TV variety show starring Israeli teenage heartthrobs. 
In early December, I wouldn’t have known Chanukah is around the corner if not for the bakeries’ sufganiyot. (Roladin’s candy-sparkle sufganiyot give holiday lattes a run for its gelt, and not just in the calorie department.) Yesterday, I walked into an elementary school to find some handmade cardboard dreidels twirling from the ceiling, but I have yet to see one Chanukah trinket decorating a public square or Tel Aviv storefront.
Should Chanukah — or Jewish holidays in general, for that matter — become more commercial and universalized in Israel? Think of the latte possibilities! Honey cake latte! Cheesecake latte! Pomegranate tea latte! Isn’t Elijah the Prophet a sort of Jewish “Santa”?
The commercialization of Christmas has served as a form of outreach for Christianity and America; these outer displays of merriness and wealth make children and adults alike want to be part of such a prosperous, merry society. Commercializing Chanukah, as a start, could be the ultimate form of hasbarah (Jewish public relations). But Israel is notoriously awful at PR. Israeli governments and businesses are probably too preoccupied with daily survival to create fluffy holiday displays. And which holidays should Israelis prioritize? Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot? I’m still recovering from that three-day Sukkot holiday meal.
While I no longer long for a Christmas tree, I confess that I still listen to The Carpenters’ “Christmas Collection” every December.
Israeli artists have yet to develop holiday-inspired pop, and pretty Christmas melodies still inspire me with some sort of holiday spirit. They also provide momentary escape from the particularistic Jewish struggles our holidays commemorate. 
Israel does have one holiday for which municipalities generally invest in street-wide accouterments: Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day.
Makes sense. Why invest in the more ancient miracle of Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel when we can parade the modern one?
As we light the first Chanukah candle, I’m sure to see candles lit in the windows of homes, malls and public squares. But it’s the lights I see every nonholiday night that inspire my belief in miracles — the lights of Tel Aviv skyscrapers, the headlights of Israelis going about their business. It’s the celebration of the chance to live here, to realize a modern Jewish miracle that embodies moral, intellectual and human achievement — that’s a Chanukah gift no Macy’s window could ever showcase. 
My mother should be glad to know I’m in a place where I can fearlessly, proudly wear my solid silver Jewish star. Let that produce some “Chanukah envy.”