In the popular imagination, Hanukkah is the Jewish equivalent of Christmas: a central religious holiday held during the winter. Like Christmas, it’s grown bigger and more commercialized over the years, and comes complete with its own presents, decorations and songs (“so drink your gin and tonic-ah,” as Adam Sandler sings).
The popular imagination is wrong.
“Religiously it’s probably one of the least significant Jewish holidays,” Rabbi Michael Schadick said. Rabbi Schadick, who presides over local synagogue Temple Emanuel, said that there is no mention of Hanukkah in the Torah, the Jewish holy book (known to Christians as the Old Testament).
Above all else, the holiday celebrates religious freedom.
Antiochus IV Epiphanes, a Greek king, persecuted the Jews of his empire, prohibiting their religious practices, which included reading the Torah, circumcision and following dietary restrictions. The Holy Temple in Jerusalem was dedicated to Zeus, and, in defiance of Jewish law, pigs were slaughtered within it.
For three years, a group of Jewish rebels led by Judah Maccabee fought to recover the Temple and to restore the freedom to worship as they pleased. Around 200 BC, they succeeded. The Temple was rededicated.
It is said that a small amount of olive oil was found in the Temple. It was used to light the Temple Candelabra. Somehow, the oil lasted eight full days, until another supply of it could be secured.
For centuries, that miracle and the victory for religious freedom were celebrated in small ways: the lighting of menorahs, the eating of fried food. It’s still celebrated in that minor way all over the world, including Israel. The one exception: America.
“Principally, Hanukkah has grown in America—this land of wealth and commercial indulgence—because Christmas has grown in such a huge way,” Rabbi Schadick said. “Jewish children, when asked what their favorite holiday is, it’s Hanukkah. Many children get gifts each of the eight nights. It’s a major gift-giving celebration; why wouldn’t it be their favorite?”
It’s more than gifts, though, as he pointed out. It gives American Jews a sense of self-pride when what feels like the rest of the country is celebrating a Christian holiday. “There’s an inherently festive nature to it,” Rabbi Schadick said.
Has it gone too far? Perhaps. Some Jewish Americans put up Hanukkah trees and stockings: clear Christmas analogues. One online store sells sweaters with the image of a menorah and, below it, the phrase, “BLAZE IT.”
Rabbi Schadick resists attempts to make Hanukkah into Christmas (he doesn’t put up a tree, although he does use Hanukkah wrapping paper). But, he argues, if any Jewish holiday should be commercialized, better that it’s one of no religious significance, like Hanukkah.
Our conversation turned to anti-Semitism. The day before we met, a man in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania entered the Tree of Life synagogue and killed eleven people. A police car sat in the parking lot as I walked into Temple Emanuel. Inside, teachers discussed how much young students should be told about why the police were there.
Anti-Semitism is an old sickness. In the Middle Ages, stories arose of Jews as horned, wicked people who poisoned wells and who, after murdering Christian children, used their blood to make matzah. Today, some see Jews as the dark masters of international conspiracies whose machinations control our world.
The madness of anti-Semitism has at times receded, but never completely. Today, it’s on the rise. According to the Anti-Defamation League, anti-Semitic incidents rose 57 percent in 2017, and anti-Semitic threats, online and in person, have not been difficult to find in 2018.
Rabbi Schadick attributes some of this rise to ignorance. It’s harder to hate people once you know them. Harder to see them as shadowy conspiracists, or the kind of people who would bake the blood of children into their bread. “Whenever someone learns of a tradition that’s not theirs, it breaks down barriers. But for that to happen, they need to interact with us.”
While Grand Rapids does not have a large Jewish population, Judaism has been here almost as long as the city has. Julian Houseman, a prominent businessman and one of Temple Emanuel’s founders, served as mayor of the city in 1872-1873 and 1874-1875.
Asked what he would recommend to people horrified by anti-Semitism and looking for a way to help, Rabbi Schadick said, “When you hear people disparage Jews, call them on it. Jews teach unequivocally that we are all made in God’s image. Tzelem Elohim.”
Through its cultural prominence, whatever its lack of religious significance, Hanukkah provides one more opportunity for those of us outside the faith to learn about our Jewish neighbors, and to recognize in their faces the humanity we share.
*Main photo courtesy of Thinkstock Photos: Hanukkah celebration with menorah, gift box and dreidel on wooden table over blackboard background. All other photos courtesy of Temple Emanuel.