This Jewish year of 5782 is turning out to be quite a challenge to people who feel both fully Jewish and fully American. Not only did Rosh Hashanah begin on the night of the first Monday in September (thus curtailing Labor Day Weekend), and not only did all of the Jewish holidays fall out during weekdays (forcing observant Jews to take a whopping seven vacation days). Hanukkah also impinged upon Thanksgiving weekend, as the holiday began on Sunday night, November 28. It’s one thing to have Hanukkah fall smack on Thanksgiving day, as happened in a rare occurrence in 2013; in that case, American Jews could have their turkey and latkes and eat them both together—a wonderful celebration of Jewish and American culture. But to have Hanukkah begin at the tail end of Thanksgiving weekend, at a time when Americans are typically traveling back to regular time and away from holiday/family time? Why, that’s just cruel!
To be sure, had Hanukkah managed to miss Thanksgiving weekend by a day or two, things would not have been exactly rosy for American Jews this year. Hanukkah 5782 would still be marked with the dreaded “early” label; i.e., a year when Hanukkah ends before Christmas begins. An early Hanukkah is disconcerting for many Jews. It’s sort of like a secret Marano holiday: the Jews are celebrating in their homes while the outside world is filled with anticipation of Christmas. You are wished “Merry Christmas” all throughout your holiday—though December 25th is several weeks away. True, there are print and broadcast media pieces on Hanukkah, and schools and offices sprout paper menorahs, but these cannot put a dent in the general feeling of Christmas that pervades the outside world.
As is the case every year, Hanukkah in Israel is always on time. It is never early or late. And while Israeli life is geared toward the Gregorian calendar (so that, unlike Christmas, even knowledgeable Israelis have to do some figuring in order to calculate the first night of Hanukkah), one can gauge the date of Hanukkah by the availability and variety of sufganiyot (donuts). Sufganiyot start making their appearance in October, shortly after the conclusion of Judaism’s Fall holidays. As Hanukkah nears, donut makers get more ambitious both in terms of quantity and quality—augmenting the traditional strawberry jelly filling with butterscotch, chocolate, halva, and even guava and passion fruit, as well as experimenting with more sophisticated donut coatings (like carob powder or ground brown sugar) rather than the usual powdered sugar.
I have to admit that left to its lonesome, there’s some drama missing in a Hanukkah without Christmas. After all, as our prayers remind us, Hanukkah celebrates a Jewish victory of the weak and the few over the strong and the many. The spirit of Hanukkah comes to life more in a country where you have to fight for it, where you have to insist on its legitimate place on the cultural spectrum. When you put your hanukiyah (menorah) on your window sill in the diaspora, you feel that you are making an important religious statement, that you are doing something to spread the Hanukkah spirit. The hanukiyot that we light on our window sill in Herzliya look nice, but we don’t quite sense that we have just done an act worthy of the Maccabees.
It is precisely here that American Jews can turn the apparent “lemon” of the timing of Hanukkah 5782 into lemonade. I hope many people were able to put off returning home by a few hours in order to light the first Hanukkah candle together with their extended family in order to marvelously blend American and Jewish culture. Happy Hanukkah!
Teddy Weinberger is director of development for a consulting company called Meaningful. He made aliyah with his family in 1997 from Miami, where he was an assistant professor of religious studies. Teddy and his wife, Sarah Jane Ross, have five children.