When I walked into our local Kmart the night after Labor Day, Christmas music already beckoned shoppers to do what they do best during the great white winter holiday: consume. Traditional Christians probably decry the way in which the focus of their holy day has shifted away from their Messiah toward consumerism. Jewish folks decry this as well (and certainly this Jewish folk does) because it pressures us to celebrate our less significant winter holiday, Chanukah, in a similar way.
The irony couldn’t be more striking. Chanukah is the holiday that celebrates Jewish distinctiveness over assimilation. The Maccabees — zealots to some, freedom fighters to others — fought to preserve a sense of Jewish distinctiveness in the face of the Assyrian Greeks and other Jews who were attracted to their ways.
So in order to really celebrate Chanukah this year, let’s ask ourselves: What makes us Jews distinct? How can we celebrate our distinctiveness in ways that strengthen our own identities and the Jewish identity of our families? How can we bring the best of what Judaism has to offer to our communities and to the larger society?
The concept of tzedakah — charitable giving — is one of Judaism’s great contributions to the world. Ethical monotheism, the Ten Commandments and the concept of Shabbat rank way up there, too. Jewish tradition posits giving tzedakah as an obligation (according to Maimonides, 20 percent of your income is average, with 10 percent as the minimum) and holds that this obligation rests on everybody, not just the well-off (the Shulchan Arukh states that “even one who is supported by tzedakah is required to give from what he has been given”). This offers a paradigm for a just and supportive society that holds rampant consumerism in check.
So I propose that this Chanukah, instead of pouring our creative energies into giving material gifts, we use that creativity to dedicate each night and each candle to a different aspect of giving.
Candle 1: Have an intimate dinner with family and friends. Learn about the issues of most concern to them, then set aside the money you would spend on a material gift to make a contribution to that organization or cause in their honor.
Candle 2: Make a site visit. Follow up on the first night’s activity and, if the cause is a local one, arrange to go on a site visit together to learn more about the organization’s work and how you can get involved. This activity is especially good for parents with young children.
Candle 3: Be on the lookout for charity events in your area. Plan ahead and bring a buddy to attend the event, and dedicate yourself to expanding your horizons on issues in the world in need of addressing.
Candle 4: Think about someone in your life in immediate need. It might be someone who just had a baby and could use a home-cooked meal. It might be someone in the hospital who could use a visit. Bring them Chanukah-themed treats such as cookies in the shape of dreidels or homemade Chanukah cards.
Candle 5: Get your charitable giving in order. If eight nights of eating latkes and jelly doughnuts becomes too much for you, take the night off and plan ahead for the coming fiscal year. What are the issue areas to which you want to commit yourself this year? How much time or money do you want to give? Make a plan.
Candle 6: Give more than your money and time — give of your values. Think about a value that is important to you that you haven’t had time to develop (does the refrain “too busy” ring a bell?) and do an activity that reflects that value with a spouse, child or friend. If it is caring for the environment, find a lecture, watch a movie or canvass for an environmental organization for the day. If the value is eating nutritious food, take a trip to your local grocer to buy nutritious food and cook it together with a friend.
Candle 7: Think about someone else in your life who is too busy to think about holiday presents. Give them a break. For a busy parent, this could mean providing child care; for a busy professional, it could be giving your time as a coach.
Candle 8: Have a Chanukah party and ask each of your guests to bring a gift that you can pass on to a local charity — a nonperishable food, a children’s toy, books or clothing.
Dasee Berkowitz is a Jewish life-cycle consultant in New York.