February 18, 2020

A Minor Holiday in a Major Key

Photo by Getty Images

Judaism doesn’t have Santa or the tooth fairy, but that doesn’t mean there are no religious spoilers awaiting us as we come of age. 

At some point, we’re told that Hanukkah isn’t a major Jewish holiday; it’s a modern one. Its commandments are rabbinic, not divine, and the tradition of giving presents isn’t even original. On a religious level, Hanukkah certainly doesn’t hold a candle — let alone eight — to Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot.

Decades ago, when my mother was a cub reporter at the Tacoma News Tribune and the only journalist on staff whose last name was Cohen, she was assigned a story on Hanukkah. Already disabused of the notion of Hanukkah as a major Jewish holiday and believing that American non-Jews misconstrued it as a religious analogue for Christmas, she spoke to a local rabbi looking for an angle that might present the holiday in a stronger light.

To her surprise, he pushed back on her preconception. On the contrary, the rabbi told her, Hanukkah is the essential holiday of contemporary American Judaism because it forces people to decide which side they’re on. I heard this story a few years ago from my dad, who said that small revelation marked the beginning of my family’s long arc toward religious observance.

Our tradition regards Hanukkah mostly as a cautionary tale against assimilation, but the existential threat is still a violent one. The physical danger described in the Hanukkah story seems equally acute to that of the Megillah. The Maccabees respond to state-sponsored vandalism of their religious institutions by staging a rebellion and overcoming an army raised to quell them.

It’s hard not to think about the specter of anti-Semitism this week. Days after an armed couple killed three people at a kosher grocery in Jersey City, N.J., a young man is suspected of breaking into Nessah Synagogue in Beverly Hills and ransacking the sanctuary. Authorities said he flipped furniture upside down, threw tallitot on the floor and badly damaged Torah scrolls.

Perhaps because this is a thread that has run steadily through our history, there is a suspicion of fun in observant Judaism. Fun implies worldly pleasures, which undermine the primacy of worship. More fun equals less serious. Less serious means less grounded and less prepared.

I can still hear my middle school rebbe severely informing the class that Judaism has no word for fun. (Kef is modern Hebrew.) Our life’s purpose is to serve God, not play games and drink milkshakes. You know who was having fun? The Greeks.

He was the fifth-grade rebbe in yeshiva day school, which I started attending at the culmination of my parents’ journey to observance. That he was my first Orthodox Jewish educator means he probably was the one who broke the news that Hanukkah wasn’t worth half a seder. 

Jewish holidays are what make my extended family a family, despite only some of us being observant. Among those occasions for family gatherings, it is through Hanukkah that we commit to passing on the light of Judaism. We send detailed gift lists that double as life updates. Everyone comes in from out of town. We light the candles and sing the blessing together, and flagrant amounts of sugar are consumed. It’s a pretty good analogue for Christmas in my Jewish family. That’s not such a bad thing. 

A few years ago, none of the eight days of Hanukkah worked for everyone in the family. Faced with a choice between celebrating without everyone there and holding a party after Hanukkah with the entire group, we decided to celebrate Hanukkah in January. We lit candles, opened presents and inhaled latkes and Krispy Kreme doughnuts some time in late Tevet. This was what taking Hanukkah seriously looked like, and it could not have happened on any other holiday.

Things are going to get worse before they get better. The vandalism. The violence. It’s here. American Jews may feel like they are being backed into a corner. Polarization among us is ascending.

Is Hanukkah the most significant holiday in our tradition? On a religious level, maybe not. But there may not be a more critical moment for a holiday that forces people to define themselves, or for a holiday fungible enough to make sure the extended Jewish family can celebrate it together. After all, if there is a time to appreciate the fun parts of being Jewish, it’s now. And if there is a word for fun in Judaism, it’s Hanukkah.


Louis Keene is a writer based in Los Angeles. He tweets at @thislouis.