Thursday, December 22, 2011

Channukah is NOT the Jewish Christmas

I wrote this sermon a few years ago for a service at a UU Church and discovered it while unearthing stuff in the office this week. I figured it was a sign to share it:

Harlan Ellison, the science fiction writer, once postulated that one's love of food could be traced to their religion. I would extend that to say the way one celebrates holidays can be directly related to one's religion as well. Now if you want to talk about people who know how to celebrate holidays with food, then let's talk about the Jews.

This is a group of folks who party like it's 1999 marked down from 5768.... Oy!

Seriously, there aren't a whole lot of religions out there that have a whole holiday dedicated to eating cheesecake while engaging in raucous religious study all night long or have a holiday that commands you to get so drunk you can't tell the hero from the villain of the story.

You're guaranteed a five pound weight loss in the spring (just before bathing suit season) by basically going on a religious version of the Atkins diet during Passover - which is a holiday that has the added benefit of making sure you have to clean your house at least once a year as you scour it to get rid of any chumetz, leavened food, before Passover starts.

The only thing that could make this religion any better would be a holiday devoted to eating fried foods and chocolate.

Oh wait, there is: Chanukah!

This is the holiday where we gamble with a spin of a dreidle while eating fried potato pancakes, called latkes, with sour cream or apple sauce; jelly donuts and chocolate gelt. As the song by the LeeVees says, "If goys can eat chocolate bunnies, why can't we eat chocolate money?"

But for a while, Chanukah was viewed as the Jewish Christmas. Middle class Jews with a more modern take on the world than their black-hatted religious counterparts. They erected evergreens dubbed "Chanukah bushes" and trimmed them with dreidles and lights so, from a distance, they looked like their neighbors in the subdivision instead of those embarrassing folks stuck in the past.

They sent generic holiday cards, bough presents from "Hanukah Harry" and invited the neighbors in to light the menorah while munching on latkes and honey glazed hams and washed it down with egg nog (because no one drinks Maneshevitz unless they have to).

So I have to ask myself a real and serious question: how did a holiday celebrating a faith that defied all odds to insure they wouldn't be assimilated by Hellenistic culture become the holiday that is now, in all likelihood, the most assimilated it can be into American culture? In fact, if it weren't for the fact that Chanukah falls so close to Christmas, ironically on the 25th of Kislev, it would be ignored by everyone but the Jews.

So what exactly is Chanukah if it's not the "Jewish Christmas?"

The story goes like this, when Alexander the Great conquered Syria, Egypt and Judea he allowed everyone to keep their traditions, religion and other aspects of their lives and world. BUT, ever the clever one, he inundated the region with Hellenistic traditions, statuaries, temples, celebrations, etc. It didn't take long for people to just kind of meld their lives with the prevailing culture.

Starting to sound familiar?

A few generations after Alexander was Antiochus, who was not a nice man. He decided to go after the Jews that hadn't assimilated with a vengeance. He installed Hellenistic priests in the Temple and instructed them to slaughter unkosher animals, mostly pigs, on the main altar. He banned the study and teaching of Jewish religion and culture and began to aggressively exterminate those whom didn't conform with his new laws.

Again, thinking of modern history (think: the war on Christmas), does this sound familiar?

A handful of farmers and priests banded together and staged a guerilla war for 3 years. In spite of the odds being stacked against them, they continued to teach and fight for their beliefs. At one point when the large, well armed army was attacking the rag tag band of brothers, things looked bad. That is until one member managed to roll under a heavily armored elephant and kill it from underneath. The general calling the shots from atop the elephant was killed and the troops lost their direction. Along with the political upheaval in other parts of the empire, the occupying forces left and the Jews went back to clean and purify their Temple.

Now here's the part of the story most people know. It took a week to press, purify and sanctify the oil used for religious ritual in the Temple and there was only enough left for one day. The decision was to light the lamp in the sanctuary and hope for the best until the new oil could be prepared. When the lamp was lit, a miracle happened. The flame burned for eight days until the new oil was ready.

So what do we learn from all this? Outside of sometimes it's better to be lucky than good, because if it weren't for the reality of coups happening in Syria and dissent within the Assyrian army, we wouldn't be here to talk about Chanukah, there will always be those that refuse to assimilate and eventually build up enough steam to reassert themselves on their own terms.

It couldn't be clearer or less surprising to see a backlash from a new generation of kids who were raised without a strong sense of Jewish identity to strike at the belly of the elephant... so to speak.

One way that began to happen was back in the late 50's/early 60's. A number of people were were close to the core Jewish leaders in the US began to spread the belief it was time to be Rabbis for the world, not just the Hassidim. Rabbi Zalman Schecter-Shalomi's vision of wrapping himself in a robe of light was heretical. Rabbi Shlomo Carelebach t'zl teaching a generation thirsty for a message of connection and love to take joy in creating sacred lives through music was heretical. Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan saying that Judaism is a progressive process and actions should have meaning rather than just rote traditions was heretical. Yet it was these heretics that saved Judaism by teaching those who had started to assimilate.

All of them, and so many others, forged the path for the new generations by finding a way to not feel like they had to compromise between their culture and their faith but they don't have to hide or blend in either.

Let me give you a recent example. I was in Target and noticed a large number of end caps with "Happy Hanukah" cards alongside the Christmas displays. So this would seem to be assimilation but what stopped me was on a card that had me laughing hysterically. Two very obviously Jewish looking boys and an oversized black baseball player were watching a spinning dreidle. One of the boys was leaving with the words, "Call me when it stops spinning" and the caption: Why you shouldn't play dreidle with Barry Bonds.

Think about it. How would it be obvious the boys were Jewish? They were wearing kippot, skull caps. There are no stars, trees or anything else anything other than these were a couple of American kids on their own turf and their own terms with their traditions. There were no generic holiday messages nor anything suggesting these kids were missing out on anything by being Jewish.

Rabbi Carlebach once wrote, "Kindling the Chanukah lights is a lesson in Jewish history. Knowing the past is vital, but living it and re-living it is the obligation of the Jew. History is important, but merely knowing facts is pagan, an aspect of Greek culture. A Jew survives in the present because he also experiences his past. And what is it about Chanukah that we celebrate? Not the amazing feat that seventy priests defeated a highly trained army of Greek soldiers... The Maccabees fought to restore the glory of G-d, but today we celebrate the miracle of the lights. Each day that the candles burned was a great miracle. G-d promised the Maccabees that the lights kindled by them would burn forever. Each day we add one more light. We must teach our children to remember the holy ancient lights, but also to add new lights, new ways."

We are starting to see how our children are adding new lights rather than reflecting in the light displays of Christmas time.

Think about the people from my generation who grew up watching "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer," Charlie Brown and other specials. After years of asking, "Why not us?" they began to write their own songs and specials. Along with the traditional holiday music you will hear on the radio, you will hear Adam Sandler's popular declaration, "Paul Newman's half Jewish, Goldie Hawn is too. Put them together and that's one fine looking Jew." If you're in public when that song comes on, you will also see kids of all shapes and sizes and faiths singing along with him as he sings, "You can spin the dreidle with Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock - both Jewish."

For almost two decades now, the animated specials started on Nickelodeon, the kid's channel. Mark Weiner,of Weinerville fame, wrote a Chanukah special that he wished had been around when he was a kid. A year later came the Rugrats Chanukah special, which was so successful, it was followed by the Rugrats Passover special, both are now staples in Nickelodeon's holiday rotations.

Jewish kids who grew up listening to rock and roll bought instruments, started garage bands and began recording. Jewish bands like Soulfarm have appeared on the same stage, and jamming along, with the Grateful Dead and Phish. Matisyahu proved he wasn't a novelty act as kids rap along with "Jerusalem if I forget you, let my right hand forget what it's supposed to do," quoting directly from the Psalm. Bands like Moshav and Blue Fringe aren't far from taking up playlist space next to their Christian counterparts Creed, Jars of Clay and Lifehouse.

Within the narrower Jewish spectrum, I look forward to more and more people reinterpreting classical Judaism, whether it's a band like Golem that does punk klezmer or magazines like Heeb that give voice to a generation wearing t-shirts emblazoned with "Moses is my home boy." This generation of young, hip movers and shakers that wear their Judaism with the same pride as many of their Christian compatriots.

It allows people like me to wrap my sons in my vision of a robe of light so when they pray, they can find their own paths.

We won't be seeing Hanukah Harry along side Santa in a mall any time soon, we've beaten back that level of assimilation. We will continue to see more and more of the assertion that Chanukah is not the Jewish equivalent of Christmas, even if we can't spell Hanukah the same way twice.

In the meantime, if you want to find me I'll be camped out listening to Radio Chanukah on XM, eating latkes and spinning a dreidle for chocolate.

It's not like Christmas, it's better.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Story Twenty Nine: Courage

Well... this is it. The last story of the month as today is the first of December. If you've been reading, could you please take a moment or two to answer a 5 question anonymous survey? After 30 days of writing, I'd like to think of what to do next and which stories may need to be developed. Also, if you have comments or suggestions, please feel free to send them to my gmail account which is hailer.karla at gmail dot com. (Just remove the spaces and change at to @ and dot to .) The survey can be found here:


I really would love to hear from you and what you think.

In the mean time, here is the last story I wrote. I was frustrated when I recently found out that the time lines displayed in classrooms that depict various mile stones of the Civil Rights movement are determined by people at the state level and Jackie Robinson isn't on there. It disturbs me that if you ask a classroom of Massachusetts students "Who is Jackie Robinson?" most of them don't know who he is or how he changed this country. The one response that angered me, in speaking with someone at an educational institution training teachers, was, "He was just a baseball player."

Just a baseball player? I don't think so.

I was also deeply disturbed when student saw a photo of an iconic moment that defined my life of a lawyer rammed with the US flag on Boston's City Hall Plaza during the height of bussing unrest in the 70's. She asked me if this was taken in Selma. We were in the middle of the Civil Rights unit last year and it struck me that most kids assumed Boston was immune from racial tensions and unrest because we were "in the North."

This story will turn into something more because we need to realize that as things become mainstream, they become normal but they become normal because they become mainstream. Part of why this country accepted Jackie Robinson, beyond his exceptional talent, was also because Red Barber made the decision to call Robinson like any other player on the field. As a result, many people accepted him as a player on the Dodgers first rather than the color of his skin.

I want people to stop thinking of "dumb jocks" and realize many, many of our professional athletes that are stand up people are highly intelligent, articulate humans that can make a difference in helping kids understand the importance of education. To do that, we have to stop discounting athletics.

As I step off my soapbox, I hope you enjoy this story and check back. If you use Google Reader, please add my blog to your subscriptions so, as new stories/bits of writing are posted, you can stay up to date. Thank you again for following my journey this month.


There were few things that made Alex angrier than when teachers refused to acknowledge that athletes had made major contributions to history. They would label him a “sports nut” or give a sigh or roll their eyes when he would relate an athlete to something they were talking about.

But he had held out hope when he walked into Mrs. Everett’s class. On her inspirational quote board was one of his favorite quotes from Branch Rickey: “I want a man with the courage to not fight back.” It was what he said to Jackie Robinson when he was looking for someone to break the race barrier in baseball.

Instead, he was so angry right now, he felt like he could spit nails. As they started the Civil Rights unit. He figured the progression made sense. They started with the slave trade and stories about folks like Henry “Box” Brown, a slave who shipped himself to abolitionists in Philadelphia and freedom and Harriet Tubman. They moved through the Underground Railroad, the Emancipation Proclamation and then straight to Rosa Parks and Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.

As she started discussing the protest known as the Children’s Crusade, he raised his hand.

He got the sigh this time.

“Alex, you have a question?”

“Why is it we missed 1947?”

“What do you mean we missed 1947,” she sighed again.

“Well, we covered Brown vs the Board of Education in 1954, Rosa Parks in 1955, Little Rock in 1957, Letter from a Birmingham Jail and the Freedom Riders in 1960 and now we’re onto the Childrens’ Crusade.”

“Is there a question or are you just recapping our timeline?”

“I’m saying we missed 1947 when Jackie Robinson took to the field with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Further, in 1944 he refused to move to the back of a military bus and was court marshaled as a result, derailing his military career but what sent him to the baseball field for a tryout in the Negro leagues. You quote Dr. King but never his proclamation that he couldn’t have done what he did if Jackie Robinson didn’t do what he did first.”

“Thank you Alex.”

“No!” he yelled.

Everyone stared at him.

“I’m sick of this! For the past three years we’ve studied slavery and civil rights and never once does anyone mention a key figure. Not only that, he was a strong champion of education as a way to get out of poverty. He kept his mouth shut when people spit on him, spiked him, shouted at him and threatened him. But did he get recognized for how he changed the world? Do we even think about why I can wear a Big Papi shirt or,” pointing to one of his classmates, “Erin can wear a Carl Crawford shirt today? Every kid in this room can tell you all about Rosa Parks, but can they tell you about anyone who refused to move before that?”

Alex realized he was standing. He hadn’t realized he stood up nor did he remember balling his fists up. He could feel his face was warm and suspected it was probably bright red.

“Alex, you need to calm down.”

“He lettered in three sports at UCLA. He was going to be a teacher but had to drop out to support his family when his father died. His wife was a teacher and the Jackie Robinson foundation sends kids to college even though he died in 1972.”

“Alex, you’re done. Now sit down.”


The word was quiet but emphatic. It had slipped out of his mouth automatically.

“Excuse me.”

“No,” he said a little louder. “Was that loud enough for you or do I need to shout it? Until this school system begins to acknowledge the role of Jackie Robinson in the Civil Rights movement, I will not calm down. I will fight every way I can to make sure that kids behind us know about him.”

Mrs. Everett looked at him. She was giving him the teacher stare trying to reestablish her control over the classroom. Under most conditions he wouldn’t think of challenging a teacher but he was sick of it.

“Seriously why aren’t YOU teaching us about this? You’re the teacher. You can make a difference.”

“Sit down Alex.”

Her voice was calm and controlled.

He looked at her and he felt something snap inside. Looking down at the photo of the people sitting at a lunch counter and smiled. He sat down on the floor.

“In your chair Alex.”

“No. I am sitting in protest.”


“Who will join me?”

A few of the other students smirked and joined him on the floor.

Mrs. Everett looked at him and nodded.

“Suit yourself,” she went back to teaching her lesson. The kids who sat down with him became quickly bored when they realized there was no rebellion happening and went back to their seats. But Alex remained seated on the floor. At the end of the lesson, when she called on the class to line up to head to the gym, Alex didn’t move.

“Alex, it’s time to go to PE.”

“Are you willing to talk about how to make sure Jackie Robinson gets into the curriculum?”

“This is neither the time, nor place.”

“Then I’m not moving.”

Mrs. Everett looked at him. She walked over to the classroom phone and called the office. A few moments later, the school floater was walking the rest of the class down to the gym and Mrs. Everett was on the phone with his mother.
About 15 minutes later, his mother was walking in the door of the classroom with the sticky visitor badge on the front of her shirt.

“Mrs. Newman, I’m glad you’re here. We seem to have a problem with Alex.”

His mother looked at him.

“What’s happening?”

“He’s a little agitated about today’s lesson.”

His mother looked over at him again.

“Apparently he’s upset that we didn’t cover Jackie Robinson in the current Civil Rights unit.”

“Well, why didn’t you?”

Mrs. Everett looked at Alex’s mom.

“Why didn’t you cover Jackie Robinson?”

“It’s not part of the curriculum guidelines.”

“Well, would you consider him a figure in the movement?”

“That doesn’t matter.”

“But it does.”

Mrs. Everett tried giving his mom the same look she used on the class but was surprised to see she could have been looking into a mirror.

“Mrs. Everett, I understand that you have specific materials to teach. I will be honest with you, I retired from the classroom a few years ago when I realized that it was about teaching to the test rather than innovation and education. I’m currently working on my Doctorate so that I can have the proper credentials to help change things back to school being about education and less about training.”

“I’m glad to hear that you’re still involved in the field.” Mrs. Everett’s voice was a bit shaky.

“I understand your need to make sure there is order in the classroom. Of course if you think fourth grade is bad, try a high school classroom that’s low on the choice list unlike this school, which is the number one choice in the city lottery. I can appreciate your dilemma right now, but my son is right. There is a glaring hole in your curriculum that needs to be filled. I’ll take my son home, but this isn’t over. I would strongly encourage you to rethink the curriculum.”

“It’s not up to me Mrs. Newman.”

“I understand.” She rose and looked over at her son, “Alex, pack up. We’re going to visit a friend of mine over at the Globe. Make your case to her and maybe you’ll be making a difference as well.”

Alex stood up.

“What’s our homework tonight Mrs. Everett?”

She looked at Alex.

“I want you to write me a clear, comprehensive essay on why Jackie Robinson is a major Civil Rights figure on the same par as Rosa Parks, Brown vs. the Board of Education and the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. You will be concise and be able to present it to the class tomorrow.”

Alex thought for a moment and then nodded.

“I can do that.”

“I’m looking forward to it.” Mrs. Everett stood up. “And Mrs. Newman, if your friend wants to give me a call, I’m more than happy to speak with her.”

Alex’s mom smiled and reached across the table to shake Mrs. Everett’s hand.

“I’ll be sure to have her give you a call.”

As they were about to leave, Mrs. Everett called out.


He turned around.

“Did I ever tell you my favorite quote from Branch Rickey?”


“It’s one I can’t put on the wall and goes like this, ‘I find fault with my children because I like them and I want them to go places - uprightness and strength and courage and civil respect and anything that affects the probabilities of failure on the part of those that are closest to me, that concerns me - I find fault.’”

Alex nodded.

“Do you know why Jackie Robinson is my hero Mrs. Everett?”


“Because he was my mom’s hero. She went to school in Boston during the height of busing, something else we don’t talk about in the Civil Rights unit.”

“Alex, maybe you can change that, but disrupt my class again and you’ll be in in-school suspension.”

“I can dig it.”

“So long as we understand each other.”

As Alex left with his mother, Mrs. Everett smiled. She hoped he would change things. The world needed more kids like Alex to shake things up and, with a little luck and some support, he could shake things up like his hero.