Hanukkah Comes Up From the Minors


I wrote a Guide to Hanukkah for Interfaith Families. Originally, I mentioned in the opening line of the guide that Hanukkah is a minor holiday. Our publisher told me, “To our readers, it’s not minor.”

I think that I have joined the ranks of the people for whom Hanukkah is not minor. Why? Because I am the parent of a school-age child now.

My son, super kindergarten kid, goes to public school, which ends long before my workday here at IFF. After school, he participates in two different afterschool programs: one at his public school for three days a week, and a nifty Hebrew afterschool program for two days. It’s like Hebrew school, only mellow and relaxed, which is good because he’s just a little guy.

All the children at the Hebrew program are excited about Hanukkah. It’s their favorite. Some come from households with two Jewish parents, some from households with one Jewish parent. So?

They are learning to sing some of the songs we sing here at home: “Maoz Tzur,” which I first learned in English as “Rock of Ages,” and Ner Li Ner Li. (“I have a little candle.”) The Israeli teachers got all the children singing “Banu Hoshekh L’Garesh,” We Have Come to Banish the Darkness, an old Israeli song about cooperative action. “Each one of us is a little light and together we are a great light.” I can get behind that!

On Jewlicious, a supposedly cutting-edge Jewish blog, there were two posts about Hanukkah and interfaith marriage, Multi-faith Hanukkah asserting that multi-faith marriages leave kids “confused or annoyed.” Another post painted Hanukkah as assimilationist because Christians invented candles. (I know. I know. Give me a break.) Further, the author of the second post asserts that no one but Hasidim celebrated the holiday before the modern period. (Eh?) She asks whether the Maccabees would celebrate Hanukkah as we do.

Asking what would the Maccabees do does not move me. The Maccabees were not who you think they were. The Rabbis didn’t like them–that’s why the Books of the Maccabees didn’t make it into the Tanach. From what I have read about them, I don’t like them so much, either. They were somehow both anti-assimilationist and completely Hellenized, and they are the only Jewish people in history to forcibly convert people. The rabbis of the Talmud didn’t like forcible conversion, and I don’t either.

If you think I prefer those terrible assimilationist colored candles at a Hanukkah party with terrible assimilationist kitschy latkes and people from both same-faith and interfaith families, you’re right. Not only that, I fully intend to butcher “Ocho Kandelikas” and laugh about it. (If you want to hear this great Sephardi Hanukkah song, I’ve embedded a sterling performance of it, below.)

These days, when I think about Hanukkah being minor, I’m thinking there isn’t much to prepare, there isn’t much to get wrong. It’s the holiday of eating fried foods. I can fry foods. It’s the holiday of making my kid happy. I like making my kid happy. It’s not the holiday of fasting while preparing food for someone else or the holiday of frantically cleaning house and screaming at people because they’ve dropped crumbs. It’s not even the weekly holiday of rushing home to finish cooking and light candles before sunset.

I still celebrate all of those holidays. Finally, in a major key, I’m happy to have this minor one, too.

6 thoughts on “Hanukkah Comes Up From the Minors”

  • I’ve been thinking a lot about relationships between Hanukkah and Christmas and what do “do” for Hanukkah as my daughter (2.5) gets older. A few days ago my wife and daughter were visiting with a friend with two young kids who have a Christmas tree up. The parent they were visiting with said to my daughter, “We have Christmas and the day of three kings (a hispanic holiday in January that I don’t really know anything about). What do you have at your house?” And my daughter excitedly said about Hanukkah and how you light candles and say blessings. I really like the feeling that this gives me of everyone enjoying their own holiday and sharing their holidays. It doesn’t really matter if Hanukkah is a big holiday or a little one, it’s just fun to get excited and celebrate!

    I was in a Jewish parenting class led by Rabbi David Jaffe last night and we were talking about the mitzvot of Hanukkah being about publicizing the miracle and what implications that has for us. I do think that here in the states at least Hanukkah can hardly be called minor. There’s plenty of books at my small local branch about Hanukkah, but not about Sukkot! But maybe we can/should embrace it as a fun public celebration that we can share with our neighbors, whatever their faiths.

  • Well, I personally tend to take a parent’s view in some of my writing, as in this blog post, because I’m a relatively new parent, and I’m always thinking about what it’s like for parents of children my child’s age. Of course, I’m also in-married and I don’t celebrate Christmas. I grew up with people who were Jews in in-married families that did celebrate Christmas, and my mom was always worried that I would have Christmas envy.

    As you will see if you look at our site, we do have a lot of children of interfaith families writing for IFF. They are a diverse group and they have a lot of different perspectives on the Christmas/Hanukkah thing, as on everything else. If you want to find the list of all of those articles, you can look for the ones tagged “Growing Up In An Interfaith Family,” since WordPress seems to hate me and not want me to put a link in this comment. There are 239 of them so far, so it’s a bit overwhelming. Since I’ve been an editor here, I’ve done a lot of work to try to get younger writers who are children of interfaith marriages to write for us, but I’ve been less successful than I would like.

    If you would like to write for us because you believe your particular perspective has not been heard, send me an email and pitch me a story.

  • Ruth,
    The author’s point wasn’t that interfaith marriage was always bad, but that synchrenism wasn’t healthy. I grew up with it, and it sucked. As a matter of fact, when I chose Judaism over Christianity as a teen, I grew to downright hate the Chrismukkah stuff. I didn’t even understand I was a Jew until I was 14 because I thought that Jews didn’t celebrate Christmas so I couldn’t be one! This is one adult who is a product of intermarriage that has a very low tolerance for the bs of Chrismukkah.

    Sometimes interfaithfamily.com needs to listen to the other side of the debate before they get defensive. So much time and energy here is spent on the parent’s view of interfaith families. However, the kids, especially the adult results of interfaith marriage, are largely ignored. I hope this slight is rectified in the future.

  • I loved Hannuka as a kid. Coming from an orthodox Jewish family, I knew all about what terrible people the Maccabeans were supposed to have been and how the rabbinic establishment many centuries later disparaged them and how the Book of Maccabees was kept out of the Jewish canon (the list of books included in the Jewish Bible, or Tanach) because of them.

    But I still loved the holiday. Kids are like that. They love holidays with sights, sounds, flavors and smells. I loved the candles, I loved the songs, I loved the presents, and…I loved getting out of school early so we could celebrate the holiday with our families (apparently, they don’t let kids out early anymore at the Jewish day schools during Hannuka…too bad is all I got to say).

    My next door neighbor, who’s from Jordan, didn’t know what to do for our upcoming Hannuka celebration, what gift to give. So she brought over a Ramadan Lamp – she said she knew the holiday has something to do with light, so she figured that at least the Lamp could in some way represent the light that I’ve brought to her family’s life since we became friends. “Blessed are the peacemakers…” I’ve heard somewhere.

    Our rabbis of blessed memory actually didn’t have a lot to complain about the first Maccabees. In fact, without them, without Judah and his Hammers (sounds like a rock band?), Judaism most likely wouldn’t have survived. The rabbinic beef was with his sons, grandsons and nephews, who took over the throne after Judah’s death and within a few generations proceeded to melt down the civil administration and the Hebrew nation in ways that we can’t imagine.

    But Judah’s father and brothers were decent people and the reason the rabbis did allow the Hannuka holiday to be included in our liturgical year is that the holiday DOES have to do with decency, with stepping up to the plate in trying times, with doing the right thing, even during times when it appears all is lost and success is impossible.

    Our congregation’s motto is a quote borrowed from Albert Einstein, “The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.” This is what the holiday of Hannuka is really about. It’s about standing up to repression, to evil and about not running away, nor standing by idly and not doing anything. This is an inspiration that transcends Judaism and reaches out to everyone, regardless of who or what they are.

    For this inspiration I thank the Maccabees. I think about this every time I light those candles and I think about what I can do today to better the lives of others in the face of many times overwhelming adversity.

  • I thought I had understood your post correctly, but you do write obliquely. For example, your comment here does not tell me how you think I got you wrong–it doesn’t even use first person. Only someone who had already clicked your link would know that you were talking about your own post! In any case, I thought you were saying that making a big deal out of Hanukkah was kitschy/in poor taste/assimilationist. I’m not sure whether I’m saying that I disagree or that I don’t care. Hanukkah was never my favorite or most important holiday, but if my kid likes it, I’m going to make a big deal out of it. It wouldn’t be the first time the parent of a Jewish child changed her practice to fit the needs of the child. Just browse our site and you’ll see what I mean.
    There’s certainly something a little off about saying that it’s bad taste to light candles instead of oil lamps. I believe it fulfills the mitzvah of publicizing the miracle. But perhaps you were being sarcastic and I didn’t pick up on the joke.

  • Are you sure you got and correctly reported what the author of the second Chanukka post on Jewlicious wrote?

    Happy holiday season!

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