This is the year I’m changing my attitude about Hanukkah. Why? Because for the past 10 years, which is as long as I’ve been a parent, I’ve been a Hanukkah downer.
“Hanukkah is my least favorite holiday,” I’ve said and written countless times. Considering some of the other Jewish holidays I’ve embraced with passion like Yom Kippur and Sukkot, I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to get on board with Hanukkah. What’s not to like about lighting the menorah with family and friends, playing dreidel, eating latkes and sufganiyot, and giving and receiving presents?
Speaking of presents, the first task I have to accomplish if I’m going to enjoy Hanukkah is to eliminate my need to protect Hanukkah from Christmas. Nobody hired me for that job, and I’m hereby retiring from the self-appointed position of reminding people that Hanukkah is a minor holiday. I’ve put so much energy into making sure my kids know Hanukkah is not Christmas that I’ve lost sight of what Hanukkah is or could be.
Reforming my ways also means that when I see stores selling Hanukkah stockings, Hanukkah tree toppers, and Hanukkah tinsel or wreaths, I’ll take a deep breath and not let it send me into a tailspin of worry about the future of pluralistic Judaism. It means I will remember that it’s not Bed, Bath and Beyond’s responsibility, nor Amazon’s, to preserve the logical thematic separation between Hanukkah and Christmas.
A harder change for me will be to stop arguing internally and aloud against articles that talk about how hard it is to be a Jew at Christmas. I’ve written quite a bit about why I don’t think it’s offensive to be wished a “Merry Christmas,” and why I think that considering the array of meaningful and fun holidays on the Jewish calendar, the expression “Christmas envy” should be imponderable. I’ve said what I’ve wanted to say on that topic, and now I’m officially moving on.
So what am I moving towards instead? I want to spend Hanukkah with a sense of joy and positive purpose, not in a tizzy. I’ve managed to make other Jewish holidays more thoughtful, soul-searching experiences. It’s time to do the same for Hanukkah.
When discussing my Hanukkah ambivalence with my rabbi’s wife, she asked me some helpful questions: What lights you up? What are you passionate about? What lights your kids up? What do your kids see you doing with your time?
Our conversation stuck with me. No matter what I’m genuinely passionate about, do my kids have a sense of that, or do they think Facebook lights me up? Twitter? My iPhone? Is that what I want? And more directly related to Hanukkah, she asked me what about Judaism lights me up, and she encouraged me to think of Hanukkah as a time to renew that spark.
That final question was the easiest for me to answer. The Jewish mission lights me up as does pride in that heritage, seeking knowledge, and keeping Judaism vibrant for the next generation. The Maccabees made unimaginable sacrifices to keep the monotheistic candle burning in the darkness. We have the gift of freedom to continue the Jewish mission, to emulate God in this world by treating others kindly and improving our character. Knowing and feeling all that, why have I been so focused on the existence of Hanukkah stockings? It seems so wasteful and ridiculous in hindsight.
When our family lights the menorah this year and hopefully future ones, I will talk to my kids about the mission kept alive by the Maccabees all those years ago. We’ll discuss the fact that their work, our work, is incomplete on a global level as there are still people suffering in the world.
And on a personal level, the mission is incomplete, too. There are still times, many times, we’re not as good as we could be. We still get sabotaged by our jealousy and pettiness, or worse–our indifference. That’s the darkness, inside and out. However, the menorah reminds us that just as a small flame can light up an otherwise dark room, so too can one small action set off a ripple of positive influence in the world. Volunteering time and contributing money to organizations are examples of helping in important and more obvious ways. There are also the subtle improvements that come from reaching out to a lonely acquaintance, releasing the need to always be right, and attempting to brighten up a friend or a stranger’s day.
These are the sparks of light I want to think about with my family on Hanukkah. This is what makes me proud to be a Jew.
What about you? What lights you up? What lights you up about Judaism?
Nina Badzin is a contributing writer to Kveller and Jlife magazine.