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.

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