December 18, 2003
Growing up, I was one of the few children that did not receive Chanukah presents. My family gave gelt, the money that children traditionally receive on the holiday while gambling over the game of dreidel, the spinning top.
My parents wanted to make the holiday as different from that green and red one that sometimes falls at the same time. An easier task then, I suppose, than now.
But isn't that what the Festival of Lights is really about -- making sure we stay different? The Israelites resisted Hellenization; can the American Jews resist Christmasization?
From Adam Sandler to "The Hebrew Hammer" to the ultimate public display of Chanukah -- Chabad's giant chocolate menorah at Fashion Island in Newport Beach -- we Jews have managed to procure equal Chanukah rights for all, thank you very much. Maybe that's not a good thing.
One nice thing about my time living in Israel -- aside from avoiding overly sentimental holiday songs and films -- was the fact that most people I knew didn't have a lot of money. Most of us couldn't afford to buy everything we ever wanted, so we stuck to buying the things that we needed, like toilet paper and shoes.
As an anonymous Yiddish author wrote in "A Treasury of Jewish Humor," which was compiled in 1967: "To have money is not so ai-ai-ai! But not to have money is oy-oy-oy!"
There is no going back in time to when we were less affluent, to when we gave a few pennies for gelt instead of gifts, to when Chanukah and Christmas weren't often synonymous for "the holidays." And that's a good thing in many ways, I suppose.
But can't we Jews bring something more to the holiday table? Don't we have more to offer this season than a giant chocolate menorah and eight gifts instead of one?
In Judaism and in life, the world presents two inherent forces competing for every person's soul: gashmiyut (materialism) and ruchaniyut (spirituality). We don't shun one in service for the other; the tradition understands that the material world has a place, too: our spiritual leaders don't take vows of celibacy -- they marry.
A person who chooses to be a nazir (an ascetic) can only do so for 30 days. The Jewish tradition teaches that wealth should be used to enhance spirituality: avodah b'gashmiyut. Worship through materialism.
This week, as Chanukah and Christmas collide, instead of unrealistically calling for a moratorium on spending (who would listen?), perhaps we should look to our tradition to see how we can enhance our values through materialism: avodah b'gashmiyut.
We can use our spiritual -- and hopefully, emotional -- wealth to give to others: to donate our time, our services, our money.
But we need to do more than co-opt the "holiday spirit," that somewhat superficial niceness that descends on everyone, for say, two weeks out of the year. Chanukah shouldn't be completely Americanized, neutered of all spiritual meaning, with candles instead of a tree, latkes instead of fruitcake (as if that's a fair choice).
The Festival of Lights, of course, is about a battle that was won by the few against the many and the miracle of the Temple menorah's oil that lasted eight days instead of one.
Perhaps this year, some will draw a parallel of the Maccabees' victory over the Greeks to the United States' capture of Saddam Hussein.
To me, Chanukah is about the survival of the Jewish people. How do we do it? Julie Gruenbaum Fax writes this week about how some movements are looking to conversion as a route to survival. Many stories in this issue testify to the ways we continue: from Tom Teicholtz's article on the revival of Yiddish (The "always dying but never dead" language) to Rabbi Eli Hecht's tale of his feisty bubbie's stolen menorah. Survival is apparent, too, in our own community, where the Orthodox Union held its annual West Coast Convention, just days after the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra gave a masterful performance at Disney Hall and the next day went to Milken High School to visit with student musicians.
What does it take to survive? Strength, courage and, yes, even adaptability and change. If the victory against the Greeks was about withstanding assimilation and taking on foreign ways, perhaps this Chanukah we remember that some of our greatest gifts come, already unwrapped, from our very own tradition.