Growing up Jewish in a Christian world

Neighborhood Focus

Rabbi Jennifer Flam of Temple Aliyah referred to it as a “December dilemma.” How do you make Hanukkah special for your kids in a country that mostly celebrates Christmas?

“I grew up living in a place where there were very few Jews, so Hanukkah was overshadowed by Christmas,” said Wendy Ross to a group of parents who met at the Woodland Hills temple on Nov. 27 to participate in a workshop devoted to finding ways to make Hanukkah more meaningful for their families.

“Growing up we were very secular,” said Sarah Rubinstein, “I think we lit Hanukkah candles one time, right before my brother’s bar mitzvah, to sort of prove we were Jews.”

Led by Flam, workshop participants revealed what made the holiday special for them. “One thing I loved about Hanukkah was my dad pulling out the guitar and singing off-key,” Flam told the group. “It wasn’t complete without that holiday singing.”

Some who participated talked about the break they felt the holiday gave them. Time they were able to dedicate to family and friends “instead of rushing around for soccer practice and those million other things,” said Howard Nehdar.

“But what’s it all about?” asked Flam. “Why do we celebrate Hanukkah?”

A few tentative hands went up, and Nehdar answered, “The Greeks destroyed the temple, and we fought them and won.” Flam agreed, and added it was a little more complicated than that.

In 167 BC, Antiochus IV had defiled the sacred temple in Jerusalem by placing statues of himself, represented as a god, inside. The temple at the time was the central place of Jewish spirituality. Jews from around the world made pilgrimage to worship there.

Antiochus also banned the practice of studying Torah, circumcision and observing the Sabbath. This was actually how the dreidel game came into being. The Greeks allowed gambling, but Torah study was punishable by death. So Jewish scholars pretended to be playing games when Greek soldiers were near and resumed their studies when they were gone.

Antiochus also made many other statues of his likeness. His soldiers took the statues to various villages and forced Jews to bow down and proclaim him their god. And it turns out that many Jews found the Hellenistic Greek culture that surrounded them very comfortable and attractive. So attractive, in fact, that they took up arms against their brethren who insisted on maintaining their Jewish spiritual identity.

Finally, though, an observant priest named Mattathias, of the Hasmonean family from the village of Modi’im, refused to worship at the feet of a statue and killed the Greek guard who insisted he do so, thus starting what was later called the Maccabean Revolt. Mattathias took his five sons and other like-minded people into the Gophna Hills and conducted guerilla warfare against the Greeks and their assimilated Jewish followers until the Maccabean victory three years later.

“What else do we know about Hanukkah?” asked Flam. One woman raised her hand (okay, it was me) and proudly said “What about the little vial of oil that burned for eight days?” to the apparent amusement of two other women, who turned to one another and smiled knowingly. Flam smiled, too. It turns out that the rabbis invented this myth 600 years later as a way of helping the Jews create meaning for their cultural identity.

“Joseph Campell teaches us about cultural myth,” Flam said, “and the lighting of the candles is just such a myth.”

Hanukkah is celebrated for eight days because the eight-day holiday of Sukkot was missed during the time of the Greek oppression. The Maccabees declared, as soon as it was possible, Sukkot would be celebrated and this happened on the 25th of the month of Kislev in 164 BC.

The word Hanukkah means “rededication” and refers to the small number of Jews, unwilling to sacrifice their identities or spiritual practices, who stood against the great armies of the Syrian Greeks to finally defeat them and rededicate the tarnished temple.

The lighting of the candles on the eight-branched Hanukkiah, the Hanukkah menorah, came later and became culturally significant to Jews as a way of bringing light into a darkened world and maintaining their Jewish identity in the midst of cultural differences. The Hanukkiah is supposed to be placed in a window where the entire world can witness that identity.

“It wasn’t until the popularity of Christmas and the rise of Zionism that the minor holiday of Hanukkah, which is not even mentioned in the Torah, began to gain significance,” said Flam. Hanukkah spoke to the Zionists, the new settlers of Israel who were surrounded by hostile Arab nations, as a hopeful ending to a dismal situation. But in the United States, Christmas added a new element. “This is why we now focus on giving presents instead of the miracle of maintaining one’s integrity.”

“But how do we pass on the essence of the celebration and not put so much emphasis on the gifts?” asked one mother.

Sheba Grobstein told of a ritual her family practices, “Instead of giving gifts, each night is a different activity. The first night might be game night, and we invite all our friends to participate, and the second might be cookie night. We make sure that we reserve one night to go to a toy store and each child will select a toy to donate to Toys for Tots.”

Her words received many approving nods. “After all,” she said, “years later, they won’t remember the gifts, but they’ll remember the memories of the activities.”

Flam shared other ideas to make Hanukkah fun and meaningful for children and adults. “You can make your own Hanukkiah by tracing around your intertwined hands, pinkies crossed together, and every night have your child color in a new flame. Or you can stick a bunch of plastic spoons in Dixie cups and every night let them paint one spoon into a flame. You can tell the Hanukkah story through puppets. You can make dreidels out of Play-Doh or filo dough and use them for a dreidel tournament with Twizzlers or pretzels, marshmallows or M&Ms.”

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