by Meg Smith, guest contributor
Although I was born on Christmas, I feel like I’m slightly part Hanukkah now. Each year since I remarried — an event which brought two Jewish stepchildren into my life — I have anticipated the Festival of Lights with almost as much excitement as my hybrid celebration of the Winter Solstice/Yule and Christmas.
My stepchildren are actually half-Hanukkah and half-Christmas; their mother is Jewish, their father is not. Their parents long ago agreed the children would be raised Jewish, so they are attending the several years of Hebrew school that prepare them to become a bar and bat mitzvah. Having grown up with Christian and Jewish extended families, however, they have honored their heritage from both sides by celebrating Hanukkah and Christmas from the time they were born. As each year draws to a close, they look forward to lighting Hanukkah candles as well as decorating the Christmas tree with their doting, out-of-town Presbyterian grandparents.
by Adena Cohen-Bearak, guest contributor
A Phoenix man celebrates the holidays with Chinese food and a lit Christmas tree/Chanukah bush in the background. (photo: Daniel Greene/Flickr)
Chanukah begins on Wednesday night this year. Tonight. December 1st. Yes, it is confusing. Even we Jews are confused. Why — everyone is wondering — does Chanukah coincide with Christmas some years and, in other years, Chanukah arrives weeks before?
The answer is that the Jewish calendar is different from the secular calendar. The Jewish calendar is lunar, and the secular calendar is solar. Since each Jewish month is only 28 days long and the secular months are 30 or 31 days long, after a few years the Jewish calendar and the secular calendar become out of sync. The Jewish calendar corrects this by actually adding an extra month every few years in order to get things back to normal. This spring, there will be an extra Jewish month (Adar II) added, and, by next Chanukah, Christmas and Chanukah will coincide once more.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Chanukah is really a very minor holiday in the Jewish year. The Jewish holy days of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Passover are much more important than Chanukah. But due to its (sometimes) proximity to Christmas, Chanukah has become much more important than it was originally intended to be, especially in the United States.
And then, of course, there are the presents. Eight nights of presents. Growing up in a mostly Catholic neighborhood, the only way my parents could convince us that celebrating Chanukah was a good thing compared to our neighbors’ exciting Christmas celebrations was by giving us eight presents: one for each night of Chanukah. Yes, our neighbors had the Christmas tree. Yes, they had Santa Claus. Yes, they hung stockings by the fire with care. Yes, they had Christmas carols. Yes, they had the beautiful decorative lights hung on the bushes and trees. But we had eight nights of presents.
In general, Chanukah traditions are much simpler than Christmas traditions. You light the Chanukah menorah. You sing some songs. You spin the dreidel (a special top). You eat chocolate gelt (coins). You eat potato latkes (pancakes). You get some presents. You give some presents. Repeat for eight nights. End of story.
Christmas traditions seem much more complicated and stressful to me. Procuring, transporting, and putting up a live tree in your living room. Decorating the house, inside and out. Buying expensive presents for everyone in your family. Cooking a special Christmas meal. Traveling to be with family. The whole Santa Claus thing. On the other hand, Christmas takes up a huge chunk of space in the American consciousness. It’s really, really hard to be left out of the Christmas festivities when all the radio stations are playing Christmas music, every other TV show is about Christmas, houses are decorated with Christmas lights, every store is loaded with Christmas paraphernalia of all kinds, everyone wishes you Merry Christmas, etc.
As a child, I really, really, really wanted to celebrate Christmas. In spite of the eight nights of presents. I wanted a tree. I wanted a stocking. I wanted Santa. I wanted all of it. Now that years have passed and I have a child of my own, I think things are somewhat better in our multicultural, pluralistic, internet-connected world.
My son is interested in Christmas, but he doesn’t seem quite as jealous as I remember feeling growing up. We generally celebrate Christmas with a close family friend, and, after decorating her tree and exchanging presents, he seems to have had enough of Christmas for one year. But the “December dilemma” remains. What does it mean to be Jewish during a prolonged, public, and pervasive holiday season? It becomes even more complicated for interfaith couples, now a large proportion of Jewish families. Do they buy a Christmas tree even though they are also celebrating Chanukah? Do Christmas ham and potato latkes go together? Can Santa visit as well as Judah Maccabee? I’m not sure if we will ever solve the “December dilemma” here in the United States.
Meanwhile, I’ll sing along to Christmas carols on the radio, enjoy the pretty lights around town, wish my neighbors Merry Christmas, light the candles, spin the dreidel, eat latkes, and hope that the next generation does it even better.
Adena Cohen-Bearak is a public health researcher at the Center for Applied Ethics at Education Development Center in Newton, Massachusetts by day. By night, she blogs about motherhood, Judaism, public health issues, and her recent experience with breast cancer at MotherThoughts.
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by Rabbi Rebecca Schorr, guest contributor
Each December, parents at my children’s public school are asked to contribute candy or small toys that will be used to fill the children’s Christmas stockings. During our first year at the school, though somewhat taken aback at the blatant bias towards one holiday, I decided that this might be a great opportunity to expose the other students to a little cultural diversity and chose to send in dreidels as our family’s contribution.
Wanting my son’s classmates to understand the rules of the game, I enclosed a set of instructions with each spinning top. But in order for the game to be played, game pieces would be required as well. And that is when things got complicated.
See, the dreidel game is traditionally played with delicious foil-enclosed chocolate coins known as gelt. As I was driving to my local Judaica shop, I had a sobering thought: ‘What would the non-Jews think?’ After hundreds of years of the misperception of the Jew as a money-loving, cheap banker, would I be perpetuating this stereotype with the innocent act of including a mesh bag of gelt in the Christmas stockings of my son’s classmates?
Let’s take a look at the history of the dreidel. The party-line that most of us learned in Sunday school is that the origins of the dreidel date as far back as the Chanukah story itself. Antiochus IV, the self-proclaimed divine ruler of the Greek-Syrians, prohibited the Jews from studying Torah. According to legend, the Jews needed a way to hide their Torah learning and so they used the dreidel as a decoy. When they saw the Greek-Syrians coming, the Jews would hide their books, take out their dreidels, and trick the Syrians into thinking they were just playing a game.
While a perfect way to link the holiday’s history to its modern celebration, this is probably not the actual genesis of the tradition. Like so many of our rituals, the dreidel game is more likely a reappropriation of a non-Jewish (or non-Israelite) practice.
A gambling game with a spinning top has been played for centuries by various people in various languages. In England and Ireland, the game of totum or teetotum, first mentioned in approximately 1500 CE, was especially popular at Christmastime. The Germans also liked to play a gambling game with a spinning top.
It is believed that the Jewish game of dreidel is a Judaicized version of the German gambling game. The Yiddish word dreidel derived from the German word drehen, which means “to spin.” The Hebrew word for dreidel is s’vivon. S’vivon comes from the word sovev, which means “to turn.”
The letters on the faces of the gambling toy, which were mnemonic for the rules of the game, varied in each nation. The letters on the English spinning top were: T for Take, H for Half, P for Put, N for None. In the German game, the letters were: N for Nichts (nothing), G for Ganz (all), H for Halb (half), S for Stell (put). The German words would have been the same in Yiddish and so the Hebrew letters on the dreidel correspond to the Yiddish: Nun for Nichts (nothing), Gimel for Ganz (all), Hay for Halb (half), Shin for Stell (put).
In an effort to link the game to the celebration of Chanukah, the Hebrew letters nun, gimel, hay, and shin were said to stand for the phrase Nes Gadol Haya Sham, which means “a great miracle happened there.” In Israel, the letter shin on the dreidel is replaced with the letter pay. Thus, the letters nun, gimel, hay, and pay would stand for the phrase Nes Gadol Haya Po, which means “a great miracle happened here.”
In other words, this game is about money! Or, at the very least, it is about gambling. And we didn’t even invent it.
End result? I opted not to include the chocolate. Figured the parents might be worried about the amount of junk food that their kids would be eating that week.
(Inset image: A clipping from Pieter Breugel’s 1560 painting titled "Children’s Games" shows a girl holding a teetotum.)
Rebecca Schorr is associate rabbi at Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Fountain Valley, California. A lifelong diarist, her numerous essays have appeared in local and national publications. She opines regularly at her blog, Frume Sarah’s World.
We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the On Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.Comments
Nancy Rosenbaum, associate producer
Last night was the first night of Hanukkah — the Jewish festival of lights. I’ve been so busy burning the midnight oil (that’s a Hanukkah joke, by the way) for next week’s show on Sitting Bull, I haven’t made any formal plans to celebrate. Last December, a friend organized a Hanukkah throw-down replete with piles of steaming latkes and homemade brisket. But the fried smell of latkes lingered in her home a little too long for her liking, so there won’t be any Hanukkah party reprise this year.
Today, Andy sent around an op-ed by David Brooks about the complicated historical legacy that has shaped our modern-day observance of Hanukkah. Brooks reminded me that Hanukkah is a holiday informed by rabbinic storytelling over the ages. A few years ago I met an Ethiopian Jew who did not grow up with any awareness of Hanukkah because (like Purim) it isn’t written about in the Torah.
As a child, Hanukkah was a way to get in on the Christmas dazzle of presents, lights, and treats; but there was always a feeling of somehow missing out on the magic of Rudolph and opening presents beneath a tree. My parents would not allow a "Hanukkah bush" (the Jewish imitation version of a Christmas tree), although one year they did let me hang a stocking under the fireplace — actually it was more like a stringy sock from my drawer. Fortunately, I grew out of those Christmas longings and came to appreciate Hanukkah for what it is rather than as a proxy for something better I could never have.
Now that I live half a coast a way from family and friends, I realize I need to be more intentional about observing the Jewish holidays on my own. This may mean buying a menorah for the very first time. Maybe I’ll even pick up some latke fixings or listen to our show on Hanukkah with Scott-Martin Kosofsky later this weekend. Somehow I’ll find a way to light the shammas candle and say a little prayer.Comments