BY SUSAN ESTRICH
I like Hanukkah. It’s a very nice holiday, as Jewish holidays go; one of the few where the Jews actually won, as opposed to having the Temple destroyed, or fleeing the divided sea, or being spared from the evil Haman. Usually, it’s enough if we survive. Often, we don’t even do that.
Jewish holidays are, as I learned growing up, very much about what you don’t get to eat – anything [Yom Kippur] or anything leavened [Passover] – and what you don’t get to do; about long services and endless sermons and not embarrassing your mother by being seen at the mall.
Hanukkah, by contrast, is not about death and dying. Start with that. You can go to the mall. You get presents. It’s not about sin. You can eat and drink. Better yet, the official food of Hanukkah is oil, which means eating fried foods is a form of celebration. Jelly doughnuts and fried potato pancakes are the two official foods of Hanukkah. How could you not like this holiday?
But it’s not Christmas. Hanukkah is what rabbis call a minor Jewish holiday, even if it’s celebrated as the Second Coming by a lot of folks I know. That’s my problem. Why do we feel we need to turn a little holiday into an alternative Christmas?
Believe me, I’m as much to blame for this as the next person. For years, I’ve patted myself on the back for not having a tree or a wreath or stockings or anything else that would suggest we are celebrating the birth of another religion’s savior. Christmas, I have taught my children and my parents taught me, is not “our” holiday. It is a religious holiday. We are not Christian, so we do not celebrate Christmas. How easy it sounds.
Some years ago, when I had a radio show, I interviewed a rabbi around this time of year, and his message was absolutely unequivocal: If you want your grandchildren to celebrate Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the holiest days of the Jewish year, then you can’t have a Christmas tree for your kids. It only takes a generation to lose religious identity. Kids who grow up celebrating Christmas raise kids who don’t celebrate anything else. He had no doubt.
I couldn’t help but laugh. As a kid, I hated Christmas. I was so completely and totally jealous of my Christian friends who celebrated this magical holiday and exchanged big gifts that I would get depressed every Christmas season. I was even jealous of my Jewish friends who got trees and dreidels, Santa and Hanukkah. At my house, like the rabbis said, we had a “minor” holiday.
But it worked on me. On me, at least, the rabbi was right. I could never have a tree in my house. My kids would never even ask. We have dinner at our friend’s house, but we don’t “do” Christmas. How could we, when I’ve spent so many years overdoing Hanukkah?
Like many parents, I have bent over backward every year to try to make sure my children do not feel shortchanged at this time of year because they are Jewish. How absurd, as if not getting gifts is the biggest downside of this tribe. I am being funny, but just a little. While I’ve been congratulating myself for not doing the tree, I’ve done almost everything else.
Sorry, kids, but I think I’m finally figuring this one out. I wish my Christian friends a very, very merry Christmas. And to my Jewish readers, hey, happy little Hanukkah. It’s a little holiday, but it’s good enough.
– Susan Estrich’s columns appear regularly in The Oklahoma Observer