I have to confess that I don’t understand the whole Hanukkah/Thanksgiving dilemma. Perhaps it’s because I grew up in Canada where Thanksgiving is a holiday of recent creation, added to the calendar in imitation of the Americans. It never caught on, perhaps due to its lack of historical antecedents. I led a deprived childhood, missing out on roast turkey, cranberry sauce and yams with marshmallows. So I don’t really get all the fuss, not the mention the fantastical numerical calculations about the infrequency of this occurrence.
As you may have been noticed, it is not unusual for Hanukkah to go head to head with another, more widely celebrated holiday. And, unfortunately, it often gets lost in the shuffle. It gets trivialized or downplayed or treated as a simple children’s celebration.
And that’s unfortunate because it’s a profound holiday with many important messages.
I like to think of Hanukkah as the holiday of Jewish pride – we place our menorahs in our windows to publicize the miracle, to proclaim to the world that the Almighty takes care of His people – and to express our gratitude.
It is, ironically, the most anti-American holiday of all (don’t jump on me yet; I like living in this country and am very appreciative). Why? Because America is all about assimilation, about fitting in; this is a country that prides itself on being a melting pot. Sociologists have even developed a model for the stages of assimilation – including some Malcolm X-style anger and national pride in the middle – with the ultimate goal and resolution being a seamless participation in American life, a quiet loosening of the ties to other countries, other values, other customs (unless it’s something quaint to be trotted out in a yearly festival of costumes and food but otherwise invested with no daily significance).
There is even a course like this taught in grad school. In my class, everyone had to map their personal or family’s trajectory, starting with their immigration to the United States. But the model just didn’t work for me. I didn’t assimilate. I chose to live differently, separately. My people’s laws and customs infuse my daily existence, with each holiday offering deeper meaning and significance. I couldn’t contort my belief system, my national heritage and identity, to fit the sociological paradigm. So I got a B in the course!
But that just fueled my Jewish pride. Maybe it’s the rebel in me but I was happy to be different, to make my own choices, to stand apart from the crowd. But maybe it’s not just me. The Torah mentions over and over again that we are a stiff-necked people. That’s why the Greek’s initial strategy didn’t work. They tried to forbid the learning of Torah but that just got us annoyed. Even people who weren’t learning previously wanted to participate!
Thanksgiving is a nice holiday. It’s about gratitude and family – and lots of pie! There’s nothing not to like about it (except that over-stuffed feeling).
But Hanukkah is about transcendence, about elevating our lives, about focusing on our relationship with God, about using the material to accomplish the spiritual. The Greeks may have been known for the Olympics but the truth is it’s no competition at all; Hanukkah wins it hands down. I’m grateful to live in America but it’s a privilege to be a part of the Jewish people and to have a covenant with God – and to proclaim our pleasure through our blazing Hanukkah lights – the lights of hope, the lights of wisdom, the lights of intellect, the lights of Torah. No turkey-shaped menorah for me…