Hanukkah: American Judaism
Rabbi Patrick Beaulier
If Hanukkah is a “minor holiday”, then why does it seem like American Jews value it so much? Perhaps even more than holidays like Yom Kippur, or even Shabbat for that matter? Cynical people will say it’s because of Christmas, consumerism, a lack of Jewish knowledge, or any other number of finger wagging points of negativity which make us “bad Jews” for being on Team Hanukkah and not Team Shavuot.
My take is far more optimistic. Hanukkah has, and will continue to be, important to American Jews for three reasons, all of which deserve to be considered nisim, miracles.
For American Jews, America is part of the Jewish historical narrative, perhaps just as much as Israel (say what you will about that -- it's reality). Hanukkah takes on a meaning beyond Jewish nationhood, the emphasis not on the Temple and its restoration, even if metaphorically speaking, but on religious tolerance. When I light the hanukiah (menorah) as an American Jew, I can feel a sense of patriotism, and take time to consider my American ancestors and the miracles of their lives “in that time, in this season” as our Hanukkah blessing reads. Yes, I can dream of Judah the Maccabee, I can have a sense of pride in Israel as the Jewish national homeland, but most close to my heart will be those whose lives represent the values I live today, in my specifically American Jewish journey.
A Judaism that is accessible to people, even if for a “minor holiday” has major importance. Hanukkah does not have to involve a synagogue, a siddur (prayerbook), or anything that feels exclusively Jewish. The single ritual is simple and candle lighting is not foreign to any human being. No work restrictions and no special dietary rules, except the fun one about eating fried food! Hanukkah is one of those as-important-as-you-want-it-to-be events with those you care about with no barriers to entry, real or perceived. This do-it-yourself attitude is at the heart of the American experience, and no surprise the American Jewish experience, where Jewish life is a minority cultural life that requires a self-determination to maintain continuity.
Hanukkah also runs in seasonal parallel to two other light-bringing holidays: Christmas and Dewali. This puts us in step with others around us, makes our traditions part of the fabric of an otherwise secular society and helps us to open up ourselves to others. It also helps people of other beliefs and background begin to understand us, our stories, our traditions and our values as a relevant part of American culture. And yes, it helps that we give presents on Hanukkah and that we are a part of the consumer complex as much as other holidays and peoples, but that’s superficial. Recall that the reason we give is to highlight a moment in time and as an expression of love for others — two things that I don’t mind retail backing up.
A sense of identity, a way into Judaism that is almost without boundaries and the opportunity for interfaith connection? These, my friends, are the miracles of Hanukkah that have made this holiday a truly American Jewish holiday. May it continue to be God’s will.