Hanukah: Celebrating the Gift of Being Different

Today, I conducted a little workshop for the 6th-7th grade classes on the relationship between Hanukah and Christmas. Bear in mind that close to 50% of the children come from intermarried homes; for them, this discussion proved to be quite revelatory. A series of questions were posed to the kids helping them process the awkward feelings families often grapple with whenever this time of the year arrives.

For me personally, these questions are quite familiar; I remember growing up in a small Pennsylvanian steel-mining town where being a Jewish kid was an uncomfortable experience. My father was a Holocaust survivor, and the last thing he wanted to hear from me was singing the traditional Christmas carols chanted at school. During music, I would often sing off-key to express my protest of having had to sing, “Joy to the World,” or “Silent Night.” You could say that it was one of my first of many experiences in civil disobedience!

Back to our story … the children at our joint religious school mentioned some of their experiences. One child was thrown out of his music class (Boy—that sure sounded familiar!), while others politely sung the songs without much fanfare.

In my discussions with the kids, I tried to stress that Christmas is a lot like a personal birthday party; whenever attending the party, one can be happy for the person celebrating his birthday, but in the final analysis, it is that child’s own special occasion—and no one else’s. As Jews we need to respect the holidays of our neighbor or loved ones. Nobody has the right to diminish that individual’s right to celebrate the holiday—but the celebration is not a Jewish one. However, we also have our own holidays, many of which we observe throughout the year.

We went around the room going over the sundry Jewish holidays we celebrate.

Here are some of the comments I heard that night: Shabbat, Pesach, Shavuoth, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkoth, the list goes on and on. Although Hanukah is an important holiday that celebrates religious freedom and the right for a minority to worship God as they see fit, it is still a relatively minor holiday of the Jewish year. Christmas, on the other hand, is more like a Christian Rosh Hashanah. It is not realistic to expect that Hanukah should be equal to Christmas in terms of importance because it’s not.

Parents who wish to compare how Hanukah is superior to Christmas, since our children receive eight days of gifts are doing a disservice to their kids. It’s not an inter- religious sports competition!

One little caveat: the joint school played Adam Sandler’s Hanukah song that is designed to help kids feel better that they are not the only ones who celebrate Hanukah. My, look at all the Jews who celebrate the holiday like Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock! As one colleague observes, “ It’s a very funny song, but it’s also a little sad — for the song’s basic premise is ‘Let’s celebrate our Jewishness because we don’t get to have Christmas.’ To my knowledge, Adam Sandler has never been motivated to write a Purim song, a Shabbat tune, or one for Passover, Tu b’Shevat, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Simhat Torah, or Shavu’ot.”

Hanukah really celebrates the right to be different; when Jewish kids adopt the Christian symbols of the Yuletide Season, it actually misses the entire point of the original Hanukah story—namely, that it is OK to be different. In a society that tends to create a “melting pot” experience (to quote the famous early 20th century Jewish playwright, Israel Zangwill), it is important that we teach our children the importance of cultural uniqueness that all faiths have. To homogenize all religions into one amalgamation does a serious disservice to every faith tradition.

This does not mean that we cannot go to our Christian friends’ homes and help them celebrate Christmas. Why not? By the same token, there is nothing wrong with inviting a non-Jewish friend to a Hanukah celebration, or  a Shabbat meal, or a Pesach Seder. In a pluralistic society, everyone needs to learn how to co-exist with one another, and treat each faith tradition with respect. I know of many Orthodox Jews who sponsor a Christmas party for their non-Jewish workers. Teaching our children how to respect the Christian holidays creates an atmosphere where Christians will reciprocate by teaching their children how to respect Jewish holidays. It works both ways.

In fact, many Jews will work as volunteers at the local food kitchens and hospitals so that the Christians can celebrate Christmas with their families instead of feeling as though they have to work on their holidays.

One of our art projects today involved writing a holiday card to accompany the food and clothing that both synagogues gathered to help the poor celebrate the holidays in style. As Jews, we have a duty to reflect tolerance and love for people of all faith.

May this holiday season bring blessings to all of our lives.

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