December 22, 2011 | 1:27 am
You might have read this article when it was published in 2010, or a report based on this article. It had the modest goal of providing more evidence to the commonly agreed upon assumption that “the importance of Hanukkah among American Jews is driven by its proximity (in the time dimension) to Christmas, and that many American Jews use Hanukkah as a way to provide their children with an exciting alternative”. Not exactly an earth shattering theory, but one that the authors of this academic paper, Ran Abramitzky, Liran Einav and Oren Rigbi, are trying to prove with the zest of pioneers.
Since Christmas and Hanukkah are celebrated this week at the same time, some of the nuggets hidden in this complicated study are timely and worthy of mention. I’ll list three:
We all know that Hanukkah is “considered a minor holiday in Jewish tradition”. But that it had grown in importance with time, especially in the US. In Israel, “where Jewish holidays are recognized officially, Hanukkah is observed as a vacation only in the state’s elementary and high schools. Other institutes and companies, private and public, operate as usual. In the US, Hanukkah is considered important as it occurs during the national winter holiday season. Many American Jews regard Hanukkah as the Jewish alternative to Christmas, thus giving it special importance”.
While we can all easily explain how the holiday has different meanings in the US and in Israel, the authors provide us with this great table of data to which really shows why one picture is better than a thousand words. Take a look at the picture, above.
It is also not surprising that “Orthodox Jews are on average more likely than reform Jews to celebrate both holidays and that celebration of both holidays is much more likely for Jews who feel more strongly about their Jewish identity. Importantly, the intensity of Hanukkah and Passover celebrations is almost identical within each group”. Graph 1, below, demonstrates this obvious observation:
But here’s the more intriguing set of data – showing that the less observant is the Jew (in the Orthodox sense), the more the presence of children in the family makes Hanukkah the leading holiday. For the Orthodox, children make no difference; they’d celebrate both Hanukkah and Passover with or without children. But for Reform Jews (and “just Jews”) having children is the key. Why? Because of what the researchers argue at the outset of their study: “Our hypothesis is that Jews with children are more likely to be affected by the presence of Christmas, because Jewish parents might worry that their children would feel left out, intermarry, or convert. That is, Christmas, a fun holiday for children, induces Jewish parents to ‘compete’. Thus, if the presence of Christmas is important, we expect that Jewish parents will celebrate Hanukkah more intensively than Jews without children”. That explains why Hanukkah takes precedence over Passover when families with children are involved. But why Reform Jews are more vulnerable to this growing gap than the Orthodox or the Conservative? Because “their children interact more with the non-Jewish population and thus may be at a higher ‘risk’ of intermarriage or conversion” – which in turn makes the parents more prone to use the Hanukkah antidote.
Just look at graph 2, above.
For the third point I will not present the tables – you can see them here if you’re in urgent need of getting a headache (or if you’re a professional in the field of statistics). What the researchers assumed is this: “we expect that Jewish households who live in areas with a large fraction of Jews are likely to live in Jewish communities, so the concern of Christmas may be less important. In contrast, it is natural to expect that Jews who live in mostly Christian locations will celebrate Hanukkah (compared with other holidays) more intensively”. The way to examine such an assumption was by looking to the purchasing habits of “Jewish products” in different parts of the US, some with more Jews, some less, at different times and through different holidays.
The bottom line: “we conclude that individuals who live in larger Jewish communities or in smaller Catholic communities, who are presumably less affected by the presence of Christmas, celebrate Hanukkah less intensively compared with how much they celebrate other Jewish holidays”. Namely, Jews who live among more Christians spend more on Jewish products on Hanukkah – compared to other Jewish holidays – that Jews who live among Jews.
Another way of putting it: If you’re a kid in search of more Hanukkah presents, make your parents move to a better neighborhood – one with no Jewish kids.
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