Learning “Jewish” (Or, no, Victoria, Hanukkah is not Purim)

A Thiede Chanukiah; we like moose.

Yesterday, I received an email from the spouse of a Jewish person. Said individual is cheerfully colluding in creating a Jewish home.

“I was told gift-giving isn’t a practice done in Hanukah,” my correspondent wrote, “and that, in fact, I can avoid holiday gift-giving by claiming that my spouse is Jewish.”

Aha! I thought to myself. Judaism 101, a course which enrolls friends, lovers, partners, and spouses all over the world is in progress.

The email clearly reflected the author’s hope to avoid the mania of seasonal commercialism. I am sympathetic. I cease to go into any store of any kind immediately after Halloween. If I do, I know I will be inundated with good cheer. Good cheer and holiday music is capitalism’s sugar-coating for its systemic need to encourage materialism of all kinds.  In excess-sius each day-o.

“Jews have lived in a largely Christian world for the last two millennia,” I wrote back. “We’ve also lived in Muslim worlds, Confucian ones, and so on. But most of us in the west have been swimming in the currents of Christianity.” I readily admitted that Hanukkah was not the “traditional” time for gift-giving. That honor, I said, fell to Purim.

I promised to explain the messy problem with the word “traditional” later. For many Jews, after all, the word “traditional” really means “what my parents did.” Sometimes it refers to “what the rabbi of my shul did when I was bar/t mitzvah age.” It can also mean “rabbinic” and is often used in this sense when the Jew in question wants to feel firmly grounded about whatever he or she is claiming is “traditional.”

(“Rabbinic,” of course, is a term with its own issues, as Jews frequently forget that is a category with time and geographical limitations.  I can promise you, for example, that Jews of the first century C.E. certainly were not practicing a halakha promulgated by an elite that, at the time, had little to no authority in Jewish communities. But that’s another matter.)

“Jews,” I wrote, “have faced the onslaught of All Things Christmas for over a century. As Americans became more and more disposed to making Christmas the highlight of our capitalist and materialist culture, as they added sparkly lights and showy decorations and glittery Christmas trees, as reams of television shows and movies told adorable Christmas stories, some featuring an overweight and overwhite elderly dude who tossed presents into every home, as rabbits and elves and Nutcracker Suites proliferated, as Christmas music flowed into every ear from every possible locale, we poor Jews watched as our children increasingly felt their holiday to be out-performed by the robust glory that was America’s Christmas. American Jews had only one way (they thought) to fight back.”

Thus, I explained, Hanukkah began to resemble Christmas in, at the very least, the tradition of plentiful gift-giving. Jewish parents could even find a way to outdo their Christian neighbors. After all, Christmas is just one day. Hanukkah is eight! I know Jewish parents who give one present each night to their children. Oy.

One could (and maybe should) consider bringing back the idea that Purim was for gift-giving, which might also help to support the festival commandment of matanot la’evyonim, giving to the poor. Another perk of Purim? Encouraging American Jews to develop their cooking skills, given that a second festival commandment, mishloach manot, is to send gifts of food to friends and family. Americans could stand to use their kitchen appliances now and again.

Hanukkah is celebrated on the 25th of Kislev. The twenty-fifth word of the Torah is ohr (light).

The word Hanukkah means “dedication,” “consecration.” The root of the festival’s name, chetnunkhaf, means “to learn, to make experienced.” The first two letters of Hanukkah, chetnun, mean “grace.” Add a hey to that and you get “to rest.”

A Hanukkah candle takes about thirty minutes to burn.

May we abandon malls and stores and online purchasing locales for the opportunities those thirty minutes offer: true rest in the glow of a small and tender light, fragile and short-lived. May our Hanukkah candles remind us that life is precious.

May we, this year, give one another the best gifts of all: hope, understanding, and love.

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