Monday, December 18, 2006

The Importance of Chanukkah

In December 1984, I was a junior in college and an officer of our campus Hillel (a Jewish student organization). The people who ran the College Center came to us with a question: they were getting ready to put up the Christmas tree in the College Center, and wanted to know if they should put up the Chanukkah menorah with it. In the past, they had always put both up at the same time. But in December 1984, Chanukkah was late, starting after classes ended for the semester, so they wondered whether the menorah should be up at all when the holiday was not occurring.

The Hillel board discussed the question and it was generally agreed: Chanukkah is not Jewish Christmas, it's not a major holiday, it's not a big decorating holiday, and we should not decorate for it when it's not even occurring. We took what we thought was an important stand, and told them not to put up the menorah.

The next night, as I was walking through the College Center, I saw the Christmas tree ... right across the atrium from the Chanukkah menorah! Our Hillel president, Gary, happened to be there at the time, so I asked him what was going on. Didn't we decide that we didn't want them to put up the menorah?

Gary looked rather embarassed. He explained that he had been talking to our friend Carla earlier in the day. Carla is Jewish and was a regular at our Hillel brunches and dinners, but she was not religious. She told Gary how she felt about seeing the Christmas tree without the menorah, how alone and cold and left out it made her feel. He immediately went to the College Center and told them, on behalf of Hillel, that we had changed our minds and we wanted the menorah up.

I think about that story a lot at this time of year, whenever I hear people comment on the fact that Chanukkah is not an important holiday. Indeed, I say the same thing on my site, and from a religious perspective, it's true: Chanukkah is not very important religiously. It's not in our Bible; it doesn't have any non-working festival days; the only commandment is lighting candles, which can be done at somewhat flexible times.

But for many Jews in America, Chanukkah is the only Jewish holiday they know, the only one their families celebrated together. And yes, they probably celebrated it with elaborate presents each day for eight days, and with blue and white lights, and with "Happy Chanukkah" decorations, and maybe they even celebrated it with a "Chanukkah bush." But they also lit candles and played dreidel and ate latkes, and they called what they were doing "Chanukkah," not "Christmas." At a time of year when there is enormous social pressure to conform to the Christmas norm, they stood up and said, "I am Jewish; I don't celebrate Christmas, I celebrate Chanukkah." And the importance of that should never be understated.

No comments: