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Remembrance of Doughnuts Past: Defending the Meaning of Hanukkah

This article is reprinted with permission of The Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) and may not be reproduced without its permission. For more information about JTA, the Global News Service of the Jewish People, visit

ENCINO, Calif., Nov. 10 (JTA) -- Don't tell me that Hanukkah is a minor holiday. Not when, according to the Greeting Card Association, Americans will purchase 8 million Hanukkah cards.

And not when, according to the United States Postal Service, Americans will use 35 million "Hanukkah" stamps to mail their cards, letters and even bills.  

More to the point, there's nothing minor about a holiday that exhorts us to eat jelly-filled donuts. I know, the rabbis tell us differently. They say that Hanukkah is not biblically ordained, that Books I and II of the Maccabees are relegated to the Apocrypha. They say that Hanukkah merits only a few mentions in the Talmud.

The rabbis tell us that real gift-giving comes at Purim, when we give mishloach manot, food baskets, to friends and to the needy. They claim that lavish gift-giving at Hanukkah is a post-World War II capitulation to Christmas and to our materialistic culture.

Sure, we can easily downplay Hanukkah by bemoaning the rampant commercialization, the unfortunate commingling of Christmas and Hanukkah, the perfunctory and obligatory exchanging of gifts. But why?

From a historical perspective, Hanukkah, also called the Festival of Lights, is a quintessential winter solstice holiday, celebrated in some form by most ancient peoples. The Mesopotamians, for example, observed Zagmuk, marking the god Marduk's victory over the powers of chaos. The ancient Romans celebrated Saturnalia, honoring the god Saturn. These holidays, which usually involved gift-giving, marked the return of the sun after the increasingly lengthy and frighteningly dark days of December.

Psychologically, there's a reason that the creation of light, in Genesis 1:3, is one of God's first acts. Light is crucial to emotional and physiological well-being, helping to alleviate the sadness, depression and lethargy that often accompanies the diminishing daylight hours. And winter solstice holidays are crucial in helping to provide that light.

From an evolutionary perspective, Jewish holidays take on greater or lesser significance. More than two thousand years ago, Jews made pilgrimages to the Temple in Jerusalem to sacrifice animals on Sukkot, Passover and Shavuot. Now Yom Kippur, Hanukkah and Passover are pre-eminent for most American Jews. In biblical times, Rosh Hodesh, the first day of the month and the new moon, was a solemn holiday involving sacrifices and shofar blowing. It gradually decreased in importance but is now being rediscovered by Jewish feminists. And new observances, such as Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, and Yom Yerushalayim, commemorating the reunification of Jerusalem, have been instituted to accommodate new needs.

To American Jews, and to society at large, Hanukkah sends a major message: the right to live freely as Jews despite the pressures to assimilate.

"The message to rebel, not to conform, is more important than many of the biblical stories," says my son Gabe, 15.

More than 2,000 years later, this message is still relevant. Preliminary results from the five-year National Jewish Population survey, released last month, show that during the last decade the American Jewish population declined slightly, to 5.2 million.

Undoubtedly, when the full results are released, issues surrounding the long-term survival of American Jews will resurface. Jewish leaders will again grimly debate which programs--education, trips to Israel, outreach--best fight against the allure of assimilation and intermarriage.

But instead of bemoaning the fact that more than 50 percent of American Jews intermarry and even fewer are affiliated with a synagogue, let's look at the fact that 60 percent of American Jews light Hanukkah candles. For many, this may be only one part of a life fully immersed in and committed to Judaism. For others, this may be a fleeting and tangential contact with anything Jewish.

Either way, this makes Hanukkah a major opportunity. No, not to serve as the Jewish Christmas, but to foster, or begin to foster, a solid and enthusiastic sense of Jewish identity.

In a study released in May 2001, "The Sovereign Self: Jewish Identity in Post-Modern America," the authors, Steven M. Cohen and Arnold Eisen, explain that today's American Jews do not identify themselves by denomination--Reform, Conservative, Orthodox--or by organizational affiliations. They don't define themselves in terms of Zionism, the Holocaust or anti-Semitism.

"What matters to the Jews we interviewed, rather," the authors state, "are powerful memories and experiences."

So let's create those powerful memories and experiences. And Hanukkah, celebrated by more American Jews than any holiday except Passover, is a good place to start.

In our family, creating those memories means taking out the menorahs that my sons, now ages 18, 15, 13 and 11, made in kindergarten at the L.A.-area Heschel Day School. It entails unpacking boxes of construction paper menorahs, Stars of David and other kid-generated decorations, many dating back to preschool. And it means bringing out the dreidels and watching my sons sit on the floor, heatedly engaged in parent-sanctioned gambling.

"This year," announces Jeremy, 13, "we're using real money, not those chocolate coins."

In our family, Hanukkah also involves exchanging gifts. To de-emphasize this aspect, however, my husband, Larry, and I have devised a "cafeteria plan," giving our sons a choice of a modest amount of "gelt," gifts equal to that amount or a combination.

"I still don't know what I want," says Danny, 11, who seems to enjoy the decision-making process more than the gift.

Additionally, Hanukkah means getting together with family and friends. It means eating Grandma Norma's latkes (fried potato pancakes). And receiving Grandpa Elliot's computer-generated Hanukkah cards, complete with a groan-inducing "Grandpa joke." This year, on the first night, it also means participating in the long-awaited vegetarian lasagna bake-off between my sister, Ellen, and me.

Because at the end of the eight days, Hanukkah, whatever its status religiously, is about building memories--festive, familial and authentically Jewish.

And that alone--along with the jelly-filled donuts, of course--is reason to stop calling Hanukkah a minor holiday.

Hebrew for "Day of Atonement," the final of ten Days of Awe that begin with Rosh Hashanah. Occurs during the fall and is marked by a 24-hour fast. One of the most important Jewish holidays. Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." A Summer holiday commemorating the receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, it is also known as the Feast of Weeks, as it comes seven weeks after Passover begins. A form of nationalism of Jews and Jewish culture that supports a Jewish nation state in territory defined as the Land of Israel. Yiddish word for a potato pancake, traditionally eaten during Hanukkah. Simple musical instrument made from a ram's horn that is blown in synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, as well as each morning after daily services during the Hebrew month of Elul (the month leading up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur). Hebrew for "Booths," it's a fall holiday marking the harvest, like a Jewish Thanksgiving, complete with opportunities for dining and sleeping under the stars. Hebrew for "instruction" or "learning," a central text of Judaism, recording the rabbinic discussions pertaining to Jewish law, ethics, philosophy, customs and history. It has two parts: Mishnah (redacted c. 200 CE) and Gemara (c. 500 CE), an elucidation of the Mishnah. Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. Hebrew for "lots," referring to the lots cast by Haman, the story's antagonist, to determine the date on which to kill the Jewish people. It's a spring holiday commemorating the Jewish people's triumph. The story is told through the biblical Book of Esther; the namesake heroine, a Jewish woman, marries the Persian king. Their interfaith relationship is central to the story. Yiddish for "money," usually refers to chocolate coins given on Hanukkah (and used as bets during the dreidel game).
Jane Ulman

Jane Ulman Freelance journalist Jane Ulman is a contributing editor to The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles. She previously wrote a monthly family column for JTA, and her work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Daily News, Boston Globe and The Jerusalem Report. She and her husband, Larry, live in Encino, Calif., and have four sons.

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