Make Your Chanukah Festive and Don’t Fight the Holiday Spirit

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“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.christmas-tree-dreidel-somethingmarissa1 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.

  • MarkSoFla

    I like the holiday season. Except for the traffic. I like the lights, the music, the decorations everywhere. I like that people are generally in a better mood and are far more charitable (in all senses of the word) during the season. I like that the spirit happens just as the days have become shortest and coldest which would usually portend sullen attitudes.

    However, I still think Chanukah is a rather minor Jewish holiday and just because it happens to roughly coincide with the biggest Christian holiday, it shouldn’t be allowed to gain status over the more major Jewish holidays. BUT, I recognize that religion and religious holidays constantly change with the passage of centuries, and I acknowledge that, on the current trajectory, Chanukah may well become the most important, most well-known, Jewish holiday pretty soon.

    And similar sentiment could be applied to Yom HaAtzmaut and Yom HaShoah slowly increasing in significance when compared to days like Purim and Tisha B’Av.

  • Holy Hyrax

    I love this holiday season. It’s a “shinui” in the climate. I see nothing awkward about it. If anything, I think some Jews get a bit of “holiday-envy.” They know our holiday is rather minor and it’s stuck in between this time of season where it clearly very lively. Given that, I agree with R’ Fink. No reason not to embrace it. All of the decorations I see everywhere in people’s homes are clearly inspired by the surrounding culture, but hey….it enhances the experience, so I don’t see an issue either.

  • thatguy

    “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”

    Dreidel is a fun game to play with friends, latkes and donuts taste good, and hanging up lights on my house is annoying. I vote yes, yes and no. But if you’re going to put up lights, make sure your ladder is sturdy 😉
    On a somewhat politically incorrect note, what do you think of lighting trees, one on the first night, all the way up to 8? That would be some bonfire, we might even mix up chanuka with lag baomer.

  • tesyaa

    Ha, I used to hold like Menachem Mendel Engel and all the other nattering naysayers of negativism. It seems like a million years ago.

  • G*3

    > “Holiday Season”

    The word you’re looking for is “Christmas” 🙂

    > This group might enjoy a Holiday movie but would never dream of putting lights on the outside of their home in the Holiday spirit.

    No, those lights are exclusively for decorating the inside of one’s succah.

    > a complex about the way Chanukah seems a lot like Jewish Christmas

    Chanukah and Christmas have similarities, in that they’re both solstice festivals involving lights and gift-giving, but Christmas is much more significant to Christians than Chanukah is to Jews. I think the notion of Chanukah as the Jewish Christmas comes from non-Jews who feel that there is actually something different in the air in December, cherish Christmas as the ultimate family holiday, and can’t wrap their heads around anyone not celebrating Christmas.

    > Be honest. Dreidel, latkes, sufganiyot and gifts came from the outside as a consequence of Jewish people assimilating a non-Jewish practice into Chanukah. 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.

    1. Most people don’t know the real origin of those customs, and 2. many frum people seem to not appreciate doing things for their own sake, but only of they’re religiously significant.

    > The Seder is one example of a non-Jewish experience, Symposium, that we made better and more Jewish.

    I’d be surprised if one in a hundred Jews know that. In the abstract, you’re right about assimilating good ideas, and making Jewish practice more enjoyable is a worthy goal. In the real world, most people are ignorant/don’t care/don’t want to know how traditions originated, and many consider suggesting that they were copied from non-Jews to be borderline heretical. I like your ideas, but you’re going to have a hard time selling them to the frum world.

    • tesyaa

      my husband flat out denies that the Symposium is the source of the seder, based on zero actual research/knowledge, of course.

  • Milton

    “The Seder is one example of a non-Jewish experience, Symposium, that we made better and more Jewish.” You don’t always have to take the more “open-minded” view to make yourself sound so educated. Just because the Seder shares some similarities with Symposium doesn’t mean the Seder evolved from it. Here’s some actual scholarship on this: http://www.amazon.com/The-Origins-Seder-Baruch-Bokser/dp/0873340876

    • Kenneth Perkins

      See also the comments (and references) here: http://www.torahmusings.com/2012/04/the-seder-and-the-symposium. My favorite:

      “I wonder, will people look back on us and, talk about the Shabbat Table as being a Victorian Aristocratic Dinner Party?”

      • G*3

        The post you linked says that the form of the Seder IS copied form the symposium.

        I don’t think anyone is suggesting that someone was looking for a way to make the symposium Jewish and came up with the Seder. Rather, at the time the Seder was formalized, the symposium was the standard for that kind of an occasion, and so the Seder wound up roughly following its format. Just like Chanukah in the Western world, and particularly the US, has come to resemble Christmas in certain ways.

        And yes, Shabbos meals do resemble dinner parties, ones with Eastern European dishes. A Jew from a thousand years ago wouldn’t recognize our current standard Shabbos meal.

        • Kenneth Perkins

          1.

          R’ Student: “I think that this is the wrong approach and have recently seen that Dr. Joshua Kulp says the same in his academic commentary published in the recent Schechter Haggadah.”
          […]
          “When the rabbis put together the ritual of the seder, did they intentionally copy the symposium to make a Jewish version of it? I think the answer to that is, ‘No.'”

          How is that saying that it’s copied from the Symposium? At most R’ Student says that there are similarities because the seder imitates how free people ate (as did the Symposium), but that’s not the same as saying that the seder took cues directly from the Symposium. The Kulp article mention’s Stein hypothesis about Symposium, but also discusses other models (including Bokser’s) that place less emphasis on it being the direct influence.

          2. Yes, but saying that there are similarities between fancy Victorian/Eastern European/Syrian/Moroccan/etc. meals and the Shabbat meals of the Jewish living in these societies is different from saying that we “copied” Shabbat meals from non-Jewish society and kashered it in the sense that R’ Fink describes the transformation of Symposium into the seder, and it would be a mistake to view Shabbat meals as “copied” from non-Jewish meals and kashered rather than being an independent phenomenon the particulars of which have been informed by outside customs. In other words, saying that we practice X, having partially incorporated/absorbed practices found in non-Jewish society, is different from saying that we borrowed X itself from non-Jewish society. Which goes back to 1:

          I think that it’s reasonable to say that people were already eating Passover meals before their contact with Greco-Roman society. So even taking the position that this meal was transformed into the seder by direct and conscious borrowing from the Symposium, one might argue that (a) sprucing up elements of a pre-existing practice (e.g., turning the Passover meal into the seder via the Symposium, or basing the decor and decorum of Shabbat meals on what’s popular in non-Jewish society) is conceptually different from (b) “copying” minhagim out of the air (e.g., Kwanzaa candles*, Hanukkah bushes, or perhaps Purim costumes**), although perhaps R’ Fink meant something closer to (a) while using (b) language. In this vein, someone might believe that it’s good to embrace a festive approach to Hanukka but might also object to certain practices (e.g., Hanukka bushes) as being more like (b) and/or argue that these practices don’t enhance the iqqar practice and might even detract from it. And obviously there are plenty of people who don’t have coherent views but might object to getting too carried away with Hanukka for whatever reason.

          * Interestingly enough, after the black candle in the middle is lit first, the remaining candles are lit from left to right: http://www.officialkwanzaawebsite.org/celeb-procedures.shtml.
          ** If you hold that masks/costumes came from Carnival. Interestingly, Sephardim, until their recent borrowing from Ashkenazim, generally didn’t do costumes on Purim, and many still don’t.

          • G*3

            > taking the position that this meal was transformed into the seder by direct and conscious borrowing from the Symposium,

            That is my position. As I said, I don’t think anyone argues that the symposium was turned into the Seder, but that the symposium was the standard which informed the formalization of the Seder.

            > “copying” minhagim out of the air … Purim costumes

            Celebrating on Purim was an extant practice. The particulars, celebrating by dressing up in costumes, was borrowed from the surrounding culture. Just like having a meal on Pesach night and discussing yetzias Mitzrayim was an extant practice, and the particular form the Seder took when it was formalized borrowed from the surrounding culture. Just like decorating Succahs was an extant practice, and the form it takes, decorating with tinsel and tiny lights, is borrowed from the surrounding culture. Just like shuls were extant institutions, and the form they take, with either stained-glass windows or complex patterned decoration was borrowed from the surrounding cultures. And so on. And on. And on…

            • Kenneth Perkins

              I think that *we’re* both saying roughly the same thing re: the seder, but *R’ Fink* did say: “The Seder is one example of a non-Jewish experience, Symposium, that we made better and more Jewish,” i.e., we made Symposium Jewish, not just that we enhanced the seder by borrowing practices from the Symposium.

              > Celebrating on Purim was an extant practice.

              People also celebrate Hanukka, but I think that there’s a difference between celebrating by singing Hallel with pop culture tunes or getting a Hanukkiya with one’s favorite team from each NFL division and buying a Hanukka bush. I just guess that IMO the emergence of wearing costumes as a form of celebration is a little different from embellishing the Pesah meal via the seder/haggada or fixing up a sukka with house-like decorations, or a fancy hanukkiya, or a beit kenesset constructed based on contemporaneous secular design preferences. If it were the case that masking or disguising (or any of the other post hoc explanations) were seen historically as a major part of Purim (as I mentioned before, Sephardic groups generally didn’t get into costumes until much later, under Ashkenazi influence), and it was only the case that the *types* of costumes that emerged reflected the practices of non-Jewish culture, I’d probably put it into my category (a) above. (BTW, I’m not making a normative objection to the practice based on its origin, nor to potentially similar practices, but I don’t think that it’s the same kind of borrowing as found in some of the other examples mentioned.

              • G*3

                I don’t know. I don’t think any Jewish customs developed in a vacuum. Purim may be based on a historic event (or not, as there’s no mention of the events in the Persian chronicles and the story’s main characters suspiciously have the names of Babylonian gods), but the celebration likely developed in sync with similar celebrations, like Carnival. Purim, Carnival, and a number of other similar holidays all have as part of their celebrations getting drunk, giving out food/sweets, and the idea that the usual order is turned on its head… and masquerading.

                It’s more complicated that just Jewish customs that developed independently having things added to them from other sources.

                • Kenneth Perkins

                  I’m not saying that they do develop in a vacuum or that it’s not complex. I am saying that part of the complexity is that there are different kinds of developments, and that in this particular case there’s more room for the specific argument that I’m making. I’m not casting aspersions on this particular form of celebration, but I just don’t think that costumes are a part of Purim in the same way that the gift-giving and drinking are.

                  (1) The use of costumes isn’t as intrinsic to Purim as mishloach manot/matanot la’evyonim (mentioned in the megilla) or drinking (mentioned in the Gemara), and *some* Sephardim have only taken it on recently in imitation of Ashkenazim (which is curious given everything that you mentioned about reversal and masquerading). The earliest sources mentioning costumes are from medieval Europe (http://www.yeshiva.co/ask/?id=4869, http://askrabbihassan.blogspot.com/2014/03/is-purim-just-jewish-halloween.html), quite a bit after the other major elements of Purim were established.

                  That people drink contemporary brands of liquor and not just wine on Purim is a way in which a traditional element has been transformed over time. Extravagant (food) gift exchanges among friends that resemble Xmas are also a way in which practice has been influenced by outside culture. In my mind, wearing costumes just isn’t the same kind of transformation as these (or turning the Pesah meal into a seder via influence from Symposium), because the costumes aren’t a transformation of anything specific that was already there other than the amorphous concept of “celebration,” but this to me makes it more like a Hanukka bush.

                  (2) Even under your second model of parallel emergence, even assuming that the Purim story is a fabrication, its celebration is already attested in 2 Maccabees 15:36 (called the day of Mordekhai), a little too early for the celebration to have been inspired by or have developed parallel to Catholic Lent rituals and probably even Carnival’s pagan antecedent (and specific attributions to ancient celebrations of other societies might be a little more tenuous). Of course, that doesn’t mean that the *costumes* couldn’t have been so inspired, but then we’re already back to the analogies to Xmas trees and Hanukka bushes or Hanukka and Kwanzaa candles.

                  ETA: And even if one could find the ancient parallel, the fact of the matter is that the costume element arose (as far as we can tell) at least a millennium later in Europe and wasn’t part of that lost parallel emergence of traditions.

  • Susan Barnes

    Chanukah is such a minor holiday. It would make more sense to me to decorate for Pesach. As someone else mentioned, Sukkot is also a good holiday to decorate.

    • Do both. Do all three.

      • yeshivaguy

        Why don’t you try hanging decorations from the ceiling on Pesach while your wife is mopping the ceiling and dusting the bookcases at the same time!

        • We don’t mop the ceiling or dust the bookcases more than usual. But we do decorate the house for Pesach. It’s awesome.

    • tesyaa

      Aargh, there’s not really time to decorate for Pesach, although children certainly do make craft project seder plates, haggadot, etc. And many people go bananas decorating their sukkot.

  • tesyaa