Chanukah has always been one of my favorite holidays. I love how we Jews bring warmth and light into our homes during the darkest and coldest time of the year. I love our joyous songs and games and I love fried food. What could be better? As a child I was taught that we were celebrating the miracle of the oil; how one small vial of oil lasted for 8 days so that the Menorah in the Temple could stay lit. It wasn’t until I was older that I began to question this pivotal part of our story. After all the Maccabees had been through, fighting against the Assyrian Greeks, reclaiming the Holy Temple and rededicating it, why were we celebrating something so insignificant as a vial of oil lasting longer than expected? And why would it have taken so long to get new oil? Wasn’t the Mount of Olives right across the valley from the Temple?
Don’t get me wrong — I love latkes and jelly donuts, and I absolutely love lighting the Chanukah menorah (chanukiyah), but I realized long ago that the real miracle of Chanukah was that a small band of Jews held fast to our tradition, fought the strong forces of assimilation and preserved our precious heritage for the future. This holiday is less about oil and more about resisting assimilation.
When I took my first cantorial position in Austin, Texas, I learned that most Americans know nothing about Judaism. Most of the time I would respond to the greeting “Merry Christmas,” with a smile and a “Thanks — you, too”; but every once in a while I’d say, “Thanks, but actually, I don’t celebrate Christmas. I’m Jewish and we celebrate Chanukah.” Their reaction was always pure dumbfoundedness. “Why don’t Jewish people celebrate Christmas? Doesn’t everyone celebrate Christmas?” Sometimes I would take this further and get into the real distinctions between Judaism and Christianity, but usually I left it there, with a smile and a “Happy Holidays.” At first I felt awkward engaging in this way (I’m not usually one to welcome conflict), but the more I spoke up, the easier it became, until my holiday wishes came across gracefully and with warmth.
It occurred to me, then, that this is the true meaning of Chanukah. It is sadly ironic for Jews to adopt Christmas as their winter holiday, putting up Chanukah bushes or Christmas trees with blue and white lights. Chanukah is our holiday that celebrates our resistance to assimilation! We should make it part of our Chanukah observance to share with people about the richness of our traditions, to proudly display our chanukiyot in our windows, and yes, to respond to the greeting “Merry Christmas” with “Thanks, but I’m Jewish and I celebrate Chanukah.” We can best honor the triumph of the Maccabees, their steadfast upholding of the mitzvot, by following their example and resisting assimilation as well.
May the winter darkness and cold be diminished by the light and warmth of your Chanukah lights. Marcel, Ella and Sam join me in wishing you a happy Chanukah!