This column was originally published by the Watertown Daily Times on Dec. 22, 2016. Hanukkah 2020 began Thursday evening and will last until Friday evening:
WATERTOWN — Despite its foreign origins and relatively modest observance in this country, Hanukkah is one of the most distinctly American holidays we have.
It’s an eight-day celebration through which Jewish people commemorate the rededication of their Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Hanukkah also is called the Festival of Lights based on the story of how a one-day supply of oil miraculously kept the Temple menorah lit for eight days.
“In the second century BCE, the Holy Land was ruled by the Seleucids (Syrian-Greeks), who tried to force the people of Israel to accept Greek culture and beliefs instead of mitzvah observance and belief in G‑d,” according to the website for [Tigard Chabad]. “Against all odds, a small band of faithful Jews, led by Judah the Maccabee, defeated one of the mightiest armies on Earth, drove the Greeks from the land, reclaimed the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and rededicated it to the service of G‑d. When they sought to light the Temple’s menorah (the seven-branched candelabrum), they found only a single cruse of olive oil that had escaped contamination by the Greeks. Miraculously, they lit the menorah and the one-day supply of oil lasted for eight days until new oil could be prepared under conditions of ritual purity.”
The significance of this victory cannot be overstated. The people of Israel faced extinction through coercion and assimilation. Their culture was being eroded by both external and internal forces.
First, the practice of Judaism was outlawed. Antiochus IV Epiphanes ordered an altar to Zeus be erected in the Temple and instructed that pigs be sacrificed there. This desecrated the Holy Temple, adding to the onslaught against the Jewish faith.
Second, many Jews embraced the Hellenistic way of life over Judaism. They abandoned their traditional practices, thus further withering any remnants of the Jewish culture in the world.
The Maccabean Revolt represented a resistance to Jewish annihilation. It was a demand that the world acknowledge Judaism and the right of its adherents to practice their faith.
Hanukkah, in this sense, commemorates more than a historic event. It celebrates the indomitable human characteristic of self-determination. It’s an extraordinary example of people determined to struggle for their right to be themselves, not what others want them to be.
The spirit of individuality displayed by the Maccabean Jews is what makes Hanukkah such an ideal fit with our national values.
We as Americans exhibit this sentiment every day. We get to chart our own path in life, not one dictated to us by others.
And Hanukkah not only honors the sacrifices made by the Maccabean Jews to their culture alive, it has come to reflect how American Jews carved out a distinct niche for themselves in this country. It can’t be easy to belong to a minority religion in a society that screams “Merry Christmas” each December. Elevating the profile of what is considered a minor holiday in Judaism was, in a way, yet another opportunity for Jews to reaffirm their identity.
“For the millions of Jewish immigrants who came to America at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, Hanukkah in the New World took on new, ambiguous and conflicted meanings. Hanukkah’s proximity on the calendar to Christmas posed particular challenges,” according to an essay by Michael Feldberg titled “How Christmas Transformed Hanukkah in America” on the website MyJewishLearning.com. “By the 1890s, Christmas was firmly established as America’s premiere season for gift giving. For many Americans of all faiths, consumerism and general feelings of ‘good cheer’ supplemented, if not replaced, the religious basis for Christmas. The holiday was rapidly becoming a national, rather than purely Christian, tradition.
“For Jewish immigrants feeling pressure to shed their European ways, exchanging gifts with neighbors at Christmastime signaled their adaptation to their new home. In 1904, the Forward quoted Jewish Christmas shoppers who, when challenged, asked (in Yiddish), ‘Who says we haven’t Americanized?’ The paper observed, ‘The purchase of Christmas gifts is one of the first things that proves one is no longer a greenhorn.’ As historian Jenna W. Joselit notes, some Jewish leaders criticized the tendency of immigrant Jews to accept Christmas as an American consumer ritual. Writing in The Menorah in 1890, Rabbi Kaufman Kohler asked, ‘How can the Jew, without losing self-respect, partake in the joy and festive mirth of Christmas? Can he without self-surrender, without entailing insult and disgrace upon his faith and race, plant the Christmas tree in his household?’ Yet, Rabbi Kohler admitted, Hanukkah as then celebrated by American Jewry could not hold a candle (so to speak) to Christmas. Kohler said of the comparison, ‘How humble and insignificant does one appear by the side of the other’ and suggested that Hanukkah needed more pizzazz if it was to compete with Christmas.”
American Jews have found increasingly innovative ways to celebrate Hanukkah.
“In New Orleans, Hanukkah means decorating your door with a menorah made of hominy grits. Latkes in Texas are seasoned with cilantro and cayenne pepper. Children in Cincinnati sing Hanukkah songs and eat oranges and ice cream,” according to information by NYU Press on the 2013 book “Hanukkah in America: A History,” written by Dianne Ashton. “While each tradition springs from its own unique set of cultural references, what ties them together is that they all celebrate a holiday that is different in America than it is any place else. For the past 200 years, American Jews have been transforming the ancient holiday of Hanukkah from a simple occasion into something grand. Each year, as they retell its story and enact its customs, they bring their ever-changing perspectives and desires to its celebration. Providing an attractive alternative to the Christian-dominated December, rabbis and lay people alike have addressed contemporary hopes by fashioning an authentically Jewish festival that blossomed in their American world.”
There is a lesson here, even for those of us who didn’t grow up in Jewish homes. While assimilating to a dominant culture has benefits, to some extent, it needn’t take over one’s life. Distinct cultures have contributed so much to American society due to the fact that they are different. Families remain strong in large part because of the traditions they observe.
Where would my Irish ancestors be, for example, without Jewish deli owners in New York City? Without their beloved corned beef on St. Patrick’s Day — that’s where!
Irish immigrants in the United States could not obtain the bacon they ate in their native Ireland, so they began buying the closest substitute: corned beef from Jewish delis.
And now corned beef is as traditionally Irish as is green beer on the feast day of the Emerald Isle’s patron saint (who also wasn’t Irish, by the way).
Hanukkah [this year, 2020, began Thursday] and will last until [Friday evening]. To demonstrate how deeply American this holiday has become, I hope that those celebrating it will (along with singing a round of “Maoz Tzur”) offer a rousing chant of “USA! USA! USA!”
Jerry Moore is the editorial page editor for the Watertown Daily Times. Readers may call him at 315-661-2369 or send emails to email@example.com. They also may follow him on Twitter: @WDT_OpEd.