AS HARD AS the advertising companies in this corner of the world may try, Christmas just doesn’t have the marketing appeal that it does in the West. It isn’t that Christmas doesn’t happen here; Jerusalem is where the entire episode unfolded. For anyone who wants to re-live the birth, life, death and/or tale of Jesus replete with mangers, Magi and lambs, this is the place. But insofar as commercial significance goes, the Yuletide season is Dudsville in Jerusalem. Even when some chubby guy dresses up on the classic red suit and white beard, the assumption is that he is just another nutty rabbi from Meir Shaarim.
(Factoid: The Jerusalem municipality gives free Christmas trees to on designated days and while a few folk do take advantage of this generous offer, I think the line would be longer if they handed out knishes.)
Hanukkah is a different ball of wax. Every third street corner boasts a ten-foot Chabad menorah that reminds even the most secular yid that “A Great Miracle Happened Here: Nes Gadol Ha’ya Po.” School is recessed and parents return from work early to light candles, give out presents and attend family parties. The most valued ritual of the holiday for many is the serving of foods deep-fried in oil. Jelly-filled and plain donuts (sufganiyot) and latkes (potato pancakes for anyone born in Iowa) are represented at every meal for eight days and nights while cholesterol levels spike alarmingly. Hebrew language Weight Watcher groups enjoy burgeoning membership in the weeks following the Festival of Lights as (mostly) women ache to reconnect with their inner Bar Rafaeli.
The towns that pepper the highway leading to my humble neighborhood are called Hashmonaiim, Modiin, Bet Horon and Maccabiim, and can be found in the writings of the Tanach. With nary a detour one can visit the graves of Judas HaMaccabee and his ancestors. In Israel, history literally lies underfoot and is accessible to all: old, young, Jew and non-Jew. Our history is rooted so deeply in this blood-and-tear-soaked land that relinquishing our pride to foreign cultures represents a distressing reality which appears unstoppable. Macy’s window and Rockefeller Center are achingly beautiful this month and serve as lovely backdrops for piping carols and the jingle of the Salvation Army man. These venerable seasonal monuments remind us that America continues to serve as a safe-haven for many of history’s wind-tossed, eternally wandering Jews.
The story of a seemingly impossible revolt by a small band of Jews against the Syrian-Greek rule of Antiochus III should quicken the heartbeat of every Jewish child as he realized that he is an evolutionary product of Defiance. Integrity. Righteousness. The child of Israel is genetically stiff-necked and stubborn. He embraces, celebrates and respects but, like a wee flask of oil that lies half-buried in a devastated Temple, he is both pure and blessed with the potential to illuminate a darkened world beyond his wildest imagination.
Note: There is no connection between Christmas and Hanukkah outside of the need to join a gym after both festivals. (Wise use for Hanukkah gelt.) Gift-giving is an artificial, extremely not Jewish custom which most members of the tribe – including me – would rather not discuss because who doesn’t need another dazzling piece of jewelry?
As the Gregorian calendar closes on another year, I wish both Israel and her allies many silent nights. Praying for peace on earth and goodwill towards all men, together let us raise either a glass of egg-nog or Manischewitz and shout, in unison, “L’Chayim!”
New York native Andrea Simantov has lived in Jerusalem since 1995. She is a contributing write to Jlife magazine.