♫ “It’s the most awkward time of the year.” ♫
For Orthodox Jews, and to a lesser extent, non-Orthodox Jews, the “Holiday Season” is certainly the most awkward time of the year. Everyone around us is in a super festive mood, lights and colors of the season are everywhere, and everything seems to somehow connect to the Holidays. Drinks at your coffee shop change, the decor in all the stores, all the music, movies or television programming morph into Holiday Season themes. I was at the Third Street Promenade this week and one Holiday tune was blasting in the first store I entered. A few minutes later, the same song started playing in the next store. Even Disneyland feels completely different. It’s unavoidable.
This season makes me somewhat anxious, and I am sure it makes many other people feel uncomfortable.
There are three general approaches to dealing with this discomfort. Some people embrace the dominant culture and assimilate further into American identity. Others use it as a justification for completely opting out of the dominant culture. They engage with the outside world sparingly, if at all, and avoid the discomfort completely. There’s also a group of people who do indeed engage with the outside world. They are aware of the Holiday Season. They imbibe in its non-religious flavors, but for the most part, they also are very careful not to allow the outside influences contaminate their religious celebrations this time of year. This group might enjoy a Holiday movie but would never dream of putting lights on the outside of their home in the Holiday spirit.
I think the second and third groups are made up of people with strong Jewish identities and mostly affiliated Jews who are fairly observant. These two groups treat the non-Jewish Holiday Season as somewhat prohibited or a guilty pleasure. Most agree that the outside influences of the Holiday Season don’t have a seat at the Jewish Holiday table. There are debates and discussions about presents, ridicule for Hanukah Bushes and Hanukah Harry, a complex about the way Chanukah seems a lot like Jewish Christmas, and a value system that discourages anything that “smells” non-Jewish.
I think there is a fourth way. We should not be fighting the Holiday Season. We should be leveraging it.
Here are the rules: If it’s prohibited by Jewish law, don’t do it. If it is not prohibited by Jewish law, and it enhances your Chanukah experience, you should do it. If it does not enhance your Chanukah experience, but might enhance it for others, or help you cope with Holiday Season angst, do it.
It’s widely considered taboo for Jews to put up Chanukah lights on their homes because it’s “not Jewish.” But it’s not not Jewish and nothing we do on Chanukah is “Jewish” besides the rabbinic obligation to light candles. Dreidel is not Jewish. Latkes are not Jewish. Sufganiyot are mostly likely not Jewish (Muslims have celebrated Eid with donuts for centuries and sufganiyot are a variant of the Jewish donuts from Arab countries). Many Rabbinic authorities consider Chanukah gifts “not Jewish.” Plenty of Chanukah stuff is not Jewish. It seems silly to say that we’ve adopted customs from the outside in the past but we can’t anymore. Be honest. Dreidel, latkes, sufganiyot and gifts came from the outside as a consequence of Jewish people assimilating a non-Jewish practice into Chanukah. That’s totally fine. It’s been happening for hundreds of years. Somewhere along the way, we decided nothing else from the outside would be kosher. I think this is a huge mistake.
The reason all those foreign rituals were adopted was not because a rabbi-gician performed a spiritual-oscopy and deemed these kosher customs. It happened because people liked the stuff they saw other people doing on their special days and they added those things to Jewish days. It’s not complicated. More importantly, it was a good decision! Nowadays we refuse to add things from the Zeitgeist to our Judaism, and I think this is hurting us. We should be leveraging the Holiday spirit and its flavors to improve our Jewish experience. There’s no good reason not to decorate your home for Chanukah. It’s a great opportunity to showcase Martha Stewart Judaism™. A Chanukah home should look at least as festive as a Christmas home. After all, we already call it the Festival of Lights.
I think this is actually one of the secrets of Jewish survival. Instead of assimilating into the outside culture, we’ve created a system of assimilating the outside culture into Judaism. We take their good ideas and Jewify them. That’s one way of crafting positive Jewish experiences. The Seder is one example of a non-Jewish experience, Symposium, that we made better and more Jewish. We’ve done this a million times and we stop doing it at our own peril. This is an integral part of our survival strategy. It would be unwise to jettison it. Every December we should leverage the festive mood, not fight it.
We should not have to choose between prohibition and guilty pleasures. We should embrace the festive season and make Chanukah awesome. Let’s be totally honest and say that Christmas looks like a lot of fun to the outsider so we thought it would be smart to incorporate some of the spirit into our Chanukah celebration. Same as we’ve done for generations. Honest. No guilt. Simply a better Chanukah experience.
Make Your Chanukah Festive and Don’t Fight the Holiday Spirit http://t.co/WK3baBdx17
— Eliyahu Fink (@efink) December 17, 2014