Chanukah. Such a poor, misunderstood holiday. Nobody even really knows how to spell it in English. I like “Chanukah,” but lots of people drop that trailing “h,” and some people prefer to drop the leading “C.” Sometimes both the “c” and the “h” get lost but there’s an added “K,” making “Hanukka,” which I honestly never understood, because as hard as it may be to transliterate the guttural clearing-your-throat sound that begins the correct pronunciation of the Hebrew word, the middle only calls for one “k” and what does a double-k sound like anyway?
Chanukah is a relatively minor Jewish holiday, which (especially in the United States) has gotten an undeserved swelled head, catching a lot of reflected glory from Christmas, which, through no fault of its own, is celebrated around the same time. I appreciate the recognition — Christmas is a really big deal and I think one of the greatest things about America is that everybody stops in the middle of the whole thing to give a nod of recognition to a religious minority. I don’t get upset about being wished a “Merry Christmas,” either, by the way; it’s nice to be invited to be part of someone else’s celebration and I love spending Christmas with my non-Jewish friends. The debate as to whether it’s better to have one massive day of present-giving or to stretch it out throughout eight is also a winter tradition of its own among schoolkids. (I, incidentally, am firmly in the “one day is way better” camp, because on Christmas you can immediately turn from opening that stupid pair of socks to a hopefully better gift, but all you get on the fifth night of Chanukah are the socks and then you have to wait a whole extra day before even getting the chance of a decent present.)
Don’t get me wrong. I can reach a saturation point pretty quickly with all the holiday cheer. I’m a cranky lawyer and, after the 37th time, I am forced to hear about that stupid Little Drummer Boy, I want to rumpa-pum-pum his little boy backside back where it came from. But really, who could hate that cool dancing in A Charlie Brown Christmas — and I absolutely sing along loudly with the Heat Miser during my annual re-watch of “The Year Without a Santa Claus.”
And I do wish we had better holiday songs. Jewish Irving Berlin gave the Christians “White Christmas” and left us with the horribly repetitive “Dreidel, dreidel, dreidel”! That’s not fair. My grandfather created a home-adaptation of “Rudolph” for me, singing a song about “David the Red-Nosed Grandson” and how he guided Grandpa to shul that night, making all of the other grandsons very jealous. There was a fair level of artistic license in his song — I was, at the time, an only-grandchild, so nobody was really trying to edge me out of taking Grandpa to synagogue and my nose was very cute and not at all shiny, thank you very much. But he was trying. The “holiday episodes” of sitcoms often do go over some vague rehashing of the story of Chanukah — a Jewish character lights a candle, says a word about Judah Maccabee, who struck a blow for, well, something or other and there was only enough oil for one day but it lasted eight, then they eat a potato pancake and look warmly at their family. Nice enough, everybody learns a little lesson about togetherness and maybe there’s a funny line about energy conservation and fuel efficiency and the credits can roll.
I think it’s a shame, however, that the real story of Chanukah isn’t particularly known or appreciated, even by American Jews. Reducing Chanukah to “The Story of the Little Oil Can That Could” manages to overlook a huge chunk of the story (and the miracle). Chanukah is the story of a people rebelling against an oppressive tyranny. The traditional story really begins when Alexander the Great conquered Syria, Egypt and Judea. Alexander was smart enough to let people pretty much go on observing their own religions and customs, but a successor of his, the Seleucid Greek King Antiochus IV, began forbidding Jewish practices and enforced the worship of pagan gods. A Jewish Priest named Mattathias the Hasmonean traditionally took the first blow and his son, Judah “The Hammer” Maccabee (even then, a cool nickname was key), led the successful Maccabean revolt against the Seleucids. Yes, they rededicated the Temple in Jerusalem to G-d, they tidied the place up and, presumably found that famous little jug of extra-virgin olive oil. They also established a Jewish independent state that lasted until the Romans took over in around 63 B.C.E.
But, as my father likes to say, “just think!” It would have certainly been easier for the Jews of the time to just give in, to start worshipping Zeus and to give up their traditions. And had those Jews caved and adopted polytheism, there could have been no Jesus of Nazareth and thus no Christians, no Islam — no Western culture as we know it today. So thanks to a stiff-necked priest named Mattathias and his kid The Hammer, everybody gets to look forward to Linus telling Charlie Brown what Christmas is all about too.
Meanwhile, my wife and I will continue to maintain our ancestral traditions with our family, saying prayers that have been said by our people for 2,000 years, enjoying the warm glow of our oil Menorah and disappointing our children with lousy gifts on the fifth night.
Chanukah is a relatively minor festival that has become significant to the Jews of the Diaspora (i.e., outside of the state of Israel) primarily because the Jews of the Diaspora are a minority in a sea of gentiles. It is worth noting that Chanukah is not an important religious holiday for Jews. Though the Books of the Maccabees are part of the canon for most Christians, they are not part of the Jewish canon.
In a nutshell, Chanukah commemorates the victory of the Maccabees under Judah the Maccabee (Judas Maccabeus) over the Seleucids and the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem following its desecration by the forces of King Antiochus IV Epiphanes in 165 B.C.E. The legend is that the Jews, after purifying the temple, found only enough olive oil (an essential in the Temple rituals) to last one day, but the oil burned miraculously for eight days, when they were finally able to replenish it. Hence, Chanukah, known also as The Festival of Lights, is celebrated for eight days and the ritual involves lighting an increasing number of candles each night to commemorate each day of the miracle.
In ancient times (i.e., when I was a child), each night after making the blessings, lighting the candles in the Chanukah menorah (candelabrum) and singing some songs about the holiday, my sister, brother and I would look forward to our gift of Chanukah gelt. Gelt is the Yiddish word for money and this traditional gift consisted (and still consists) of chocolate coins wrapped in gold and silver foil. That was our Chanukah present.
Of course, food is always an important part of Jewish festivals (there is a meme that all Jewish holidays stand for “They tried to kill us. They failed. Let’s eat!”) and my siblings and I also looked forward to the special dishes that are traditionally served at Chanukah: potato latkes (pancakes) and sufganiot (jelly doughnuts), i.e., foods fried in oil. (Are you are picking up the theme of the holiday?) And after eating, everyone would try their hand spinning a dreidel (a sort of top). The dreidel game is around 2000 years old and was used to foil the authorities who prohibited us from celebrating our history into thinking the Jews were just playing a game; when actually, they were retelling the story of Chanukah. Today, it’s mainly played by kids to see who can make the dreidel spin the longest. Some of the older ones bet money on the game. It has not been picked up in Las Vegas … yet.
Chanukah falls in roughly the same time period as Christmas; it usually happens sometime between late November and late December. As the Jews came under increasing exposure to the Christian majority and the allures of Christmas, Chanukah took on greater significance. Jewish children were (and are) dazzled by the sights of their neighbors who were experiencing the joys of Christmas. Inherent in these dazzling sights was the vision of the lavish gifts that Christian children received, amassed in a huge pile under the Christmas tree. So, Jewish parents had to find a way to make their traditions seem equally as enticing. (It’s hard to get excited about three or four pieces of chocolate when the kid next door is getting a new bicycle!)
Thus, the tradition arose of giving Jewish children actual presents on each of the eight days of Chanukah, in addition to the chocolate coins. Some days, the presents are better than others; a new video game beats Jockey shorts by a long shot. There are all sorts of explanations for giving these gifts but, truth be told, it boils down to Jewish parents trying to keep their children happy by providing them with gifts, as well as memories of joy, light and family, much as Christian children experience. This is a pale way of keeping a child within the fold, but it is an arrow in the arsenal of Jewish continuity (the fact is, the most powerful way of keeping a child Jewish in the Diaspora is by giving that child a complete Jewish education in a Hebrew Day School like Addlestone Hebrew Academy in Charleston, but that is for another day).
Celebrating Chanukah with his or her family allows a Jewish child to build up a store of lovely memories in the same way that non-Jewish children retain lovely memories of Christmases past. I am no exception. Chanukah in my family was a warm and wonderful thing for me and later, when they came along, for my sister and my brother. The smells of Chanukah. The lights of Chanukah. And, of course, the gifts of Chanukah. The family together, laughing and shouting (my family was loud!). All are memories for me that will never die (sound familiar?). I’ll wager that Christmas evokes those identical emotions in every Christian who celebrates the holiday.
Of course, my memories of Chanukah, like those of millions of other Jewish children, are tied up with the Christmas season in an inseparable package. I was born in New York in 1944. One of my earliest memories is of walking through Macy’s with my mother (probably in 1948 or ’49) agog at the Christmas decorations and the music and the joy that created enormous excitement for a little boy. If you have seen the film “Miracle on 34th Street” you will know exactly what I am talking about. The depiction of Macy’s at Christmas in that film was EXACTLY as it was. I remember that day, with my mother telling me not to feel left out, but to just wait until I got home … that there would be all sorts of wonderful things for me there.
As the years went by and my own family was established, we continued the celebration of Chanukah in the same way and for the same reason: to imbue my son with the sense that as a Jew, he wasn’t missing anything, he was simply experiencing his own traditions. Of course, we built up his defenses by sending him to a Hebrew Day School, a decision for which I will be eternally grateful. Now, my son and his family have continued as proud members of the Jewish nation, including the celebration of Chanukah together and making their own memories.
Throughout the years, my wife and I developed great friendships with many of our non-Jewish acquaintances. Our closest friends were a couple whom we had met while I was earning my LL.M. degree in Washington. That relationship continued through the years and we celebrated innumerable Christmas/Chanukahs with them. They had a beautiful home on 10 acres in Great Falls, VA. It became our tradition to travel down from New York to visit them for Christmas (Joan, was the undisputed “Martha Stewart” of Christmas).
We loved all the lights and decorations; listened to Handel’s Messiah, the Pavarottis (pere et fils) singing “Panis Angelicus,” and carols playing throughout the weekend; drank eggnog and champagne; and of course, exchanged gifts. (I still remember how my then four-year-old son’s eyes widened and his jaw dropped in amazement — and envy! — the first time he saw the mountain of presents intended for their son Michael! What was going on and why was he missing out?) But we were always careful to keep it clear in our own minds and his that we were sharing with them the celebration of THEIR holiday. We shared in their joy. And when Chanukah coincided with Christmas, we lit our menorah near their Christmas tree, sang our songs, gave Chanukah gelt to their children as well as my son and my esteemed wife made potato latkes to accompany the Christmas fare. We never confused Chanukah with Christmas. We never considered the Christmas tree a “Chanukah Bush” (a frequent and pitiful attempt by too many Jews to blur the lines).
My father died on the third day of Chanukah. The following year, the anniversary of his death occurred while we were visiting our friends as usual to Great Falls. It was rather surreal for me to leave the house early in the morning to drive to synagogue in Washington so that I could say Kaddish (the Memorial Prayer) in the presence of a minyan (ten Jewish men) and then return to the house where the smells of hot cider and stöllen filled my senses. But it worked. For me, this was the Chanukah season, celebrated with people who had become our extended family and whom we loved with all our hearts. They increased our joys of Chanukah in as full and complete measure as our participation helped them enjoy their Christmas holiday. If ever there was a perfect example of the benefits of brotherhood and mutual esteem, those years with them were it.
Chanukah is for children. It is a time for families to recount the glories of Jewish history. There is a children’s Chanukah song that goes:
“Who can retell the things that befell us,
Who can count them?
In every generation,
Will rise a hero,
The liberator of the Nation.”
That is the ultimate function of Chanukah. To instill sweet memories in children. To make them proud to be Jewish. To let them know that we have our own great heroes. To let them know that just because we may be different from the majority around us, that doesn’t mean that we lack our own wonderful reasons for celebrating our existence. I can say without hesitation that I am a proud Jew and that although the reason for that pride can’t simply be ascribed to my family’s celebration of Chanukah when I was a child, that certainly was a major factor.
David A. Kaufman, the Yankee son of Stuart Kaufman, is a commercial real estate lawyer in New York. He also does stand-up comedy and is a proud member of the Friars Club, because his parents told him he needed something to fall back on if law didn’t work out.
Stuart Kaufman is a retired lawyer, investment banker and businessman. He relocated from New York to Mount Pleasant in 2012. A friend recently told him that he has been a South Carolinian all of his life ... but he just didn’t know it.