The January-through-December Dilemma

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The primary mission of the Jewish Outreach Institute (www.JOI.org) is to “reach out and welcome in” the intermarried, and to promote inclusiveness in the Jewish community for intermarried families and disconnected Jews. Originally founded in 1988 as a think tank and research facility devoted to the study of intermarriage, JOI’s services have since grown to include advocacy, training of outreach professionals, and the sponsorship of innovative outreach programs throughout North America as part of its Jewish Connection Partnership program (www.JewishConnectionPartnership.org). This column is an opportunity for JOI to share its findings and views with the InterfaithFamily.com readership.

Let’s put the myth to rest once and for all: Hanukkah is not a “minor” festival. Anyone who claims otherwise has not heeded the Talmudic advice of Rabbi Hillel, who once remarked in response to a question about Jewish law: “Let’s go out and see what the people are doing.” He understood that the activity of the people was of greater relevance, and many important Jewish thinkers have agreed, including Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of the Reconstructionist movement. Hanukkah’s “minority” status is a function of Jewish law because technically Hanukkah is a festival, not a holiday, and thereby receives less legal and liturgical attention by the rabbis than Sukkot or Passover, for example. But ask American schoolchildren and they will resoundingly let you know that Hanukkah is not “minor” to them!  

Some people are troubled by Hanukkah’s increase in relevance to Jewish families over the last fifty years, suggesting it is due to “competition” with Christmas, or worse, an attempt at syncretism, the merging of Jewish observances with those in the secular/Christian community. And while over-commercialization of the holidays is a concern for both devout Christians as well as Jews, we believe the main reason families (whether in-faith or interfaith) celebrate Hanukkah is simple: because it’s fun! Latkes (fried potato pancakes) and sufganiot (jelly donuts) are tasty. Dreidels are entertaining. Burning lights are intriguing. And who doesn’t like a party? Perhaps the other holidays should take their lead from this one–easily accessible and fun, with the celebration at home. (And perhaps this is one of the reasons that Hanukkah is celebrated more than the High Holidays: there is no rabbi’s sermon, no sitting in the synagogue all day long!)

Interpreting the transcendent values of a family celebration into a Jewish context is certainly nothing new. In fact, the rabbis did the very same thing with Hanukkah over two thousand years ago, taking the lights of the winter solstice season and recontextualizing them into Hanukkah (much like the early Christian fathers did with Christmas), as well as guiding people away from the Maccabean military victory to bring the story of the oil miracle to the forefront.

Another popular complaint we hear around Hanukkah-time is about the “December dilemma,” referring to how interfaith families decide to celebrate around the holidays. We wonder if the phrase isn’t used more by Jewish organizations lacking clear ideas how to engage the intermarried than by the intermarried themselves. In fact, there are so many more important times in the lifecycle of an intermarried family, that perhaps the “December dilemma” should be de-emphasized and other, more relevant catchphrases found for things like “the marriage officiation dilemma,” “the bris or no bris dilemma,” or even “the religion or no religion dilemma!” Or how about the ever-popular “my family hates your family dilemma.”

Those who struggle with a “December dilemma” during the winter holidays are more often than not struggling with an “identity dilemma” all year ’round, whether they address it or not. With Christmas so pervasive in our society it may seem (to outsiders) that all the issues come to a head in December. But it seems almost insulting to dedicate just one holiday season to work on conflict resolution.

Even more insulting are those within the Jewish community who would use this roughly three-week period to determine the quality (or “unambiguity”) of interfaith Jewish homes. Ironically, it’s often the same people who see Hanukkah as a minor holiday overblown, that also see the same holiday period as a major test of Jewish affiliation! It seems to us that the dilemma is primarily one for the community, rather than for interfaith families. If the families have a clear identity, even if that identity seems to be mixed, there is no dilemma. We believe that holidays are more about family than they are about theology. And family is something that we like to celebrate, particularly in these troubled times.

We don’t deny that family tensions rise at this time of year, for all families. If this season causes issues to surface that have remained hidden for most of the rest of the year, we have some suggestions. First, there are people who want to help, and if you are reading this on InterfaithFamily.com it probably means you have already begun to search for that help, which is great.

Second, we suggest using this opportunity to talk through the tensions you are feeling rather than let them fester or explode into argument. Again, there are people who can help you do so, if it doesn’t come easy for you and your family. Finally, we want you to consider the other eleven months in this “dilemma,” because there are more important outstanding issues than whether to light a menorah or a tree.

We want to lessen tension and conflict and promote family harmony. Hanukkah’s simple message helps us do so. It cuts through all the unnecessary baggage and simply celebrates the victory of religious freedom over tyranny. To emphasize this simplicity, the rabbis adapted an ancient gambling game, put some Hebrew letters on it, and taught the miracle of the holiday in one quick spin. It’s the same reason we created http://joi.org/dreidel, to provide easy access to Hanukkah and its celebration for those who may never have previously participated. This holiday season, let’s work together and find other ways to simplify our already overly complicated lives!