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A 28-second video clip from the Late Show with David Letterman showing President Bush standing awkwardly during a Hebrew blessing is quite funny (even for the 35% of Americans who still give him a positive job approval rating). After a second viewing of George and Laura doing their best during the blessing over the menorah lighting, however, I couldn’t help but think of how awkward it must be for anyone who’s not familiar with the prayers, including our own family members of other religious backgrounds.
At my family’s Hanukkah party this year, my mom was sure to provide photocopied pages with the Hebrew blessings both translated and transliterated. I think this may have helped alleviate some of the awkwardness for those who were experiencing their first-ever Hanukkah celebration. (Of course, this is Bush’s sixth year in office hosting menorah lightings…!) What else can we do to welcome newcomers to such holiday celebrations?
Some Jewish communal policy wonks want us to believe that a Christmas tree in an interfaith home can nullify all other efforts at creating Jewish identity in our children. While we at JOI would never suggest that a Christmas tree is anything but a Christian symbol, we also don’t buy that it automatically identifies a Christian home. Take, for example, this recent article from the New York Times about a Jewish woman married to a Jewish man yet creating a totally audacious Christmas display in front of their home. The woman bafflingly doesn’t even connect Santa Claus (a.k.a. Saint Nicholas) to Christianity.
And therein lays the paradox in today’s Jewish community. If either she or her husband were not Jewish, certain voices within the organized Jewish community would condemn them as having a Christian home and question their ability to raise Jewish children, just based on their decorations. But do we really know enough about them to know how they are raising their kids? Likewise, because both spouses are Jewish—and in-marriages are automatically celebrated by the Jewish community, no questions asked—their wedding would be considered a “success” by those same policy wonks, even though their decorations appear to identify them as pretty clueless about which holiday Jews actually celebrate in December. That is the danger in using only one criteria (marriage) for measuring “Jewish continuity.”
In fact, long before the rise of Jewish intermarriage in America, American Jews were putting up Christmas trees because it seemed the “American” thing to do. Earlier this year we blogged about how the head of New York City’s largest Jewish organization came from one of those households. There was also a first-person piece in yesterday’s New York Times from Cindy Chupack, a producer of Sex and the City who is married to a fellow Jew and put up a Christmas tree this year. While overall her article may read like a disturbing surrender to assimilation, she tries to assure her Jewish readers that, “if we’re fortunate enough to have children, we will raise them with the same arbitrary rules we were raised with, trying our best to sell that old chestnut (roasting on an open fire) that ‘eight nights is better than one,’ and putting this tradition behind us until the kids go off to college, if not forever.”
We as a community need to understand that there is a wide range of factors that create family identity. Through the years, we have heard countless stories of why interfaith families raising Jewish children continue to own Christmas trees, and not once has the reason been “to celebrate the birth of Christ.” In one recent article, a non-Jewish woman married to a Jewish man explains how her Christmas celebration is about keeping a promise she made to herself as a youth, when her broken family held Christmases that “were almost Dickensian in their misery.” It doesn’t mean she isn’t helping to raise a strongly-identified Jewish child today.
The December holidays can be a complicated time of year, especially for intermarried families raising Jewish children. Even as Hanukkah becomes more and more present in public celebration, Christmas is still the dominant holiday in North America and kids necessarily want to join in the fun. I grew up with two Jewish parents, and I too, wanted to sit on Santa’s lap.
Is that so terrible? In my case at least, visiting Santa did not confuse my identity (actually, when Santa asked what I wanted for Christmas, I told him I was Jewish). David Bradley, an educator and theatre artist who grew up Catholic is raising Jewish children and analyzes the recent “dilemma” of his children wanting to write letters to Santa in an article for the
Philadelphia Inquirer. He comes to the conclusion that he’s glad his children have a Jewish identity. It gives them a particular lens through which to see the world, even as they are exposed to many traditions that broaden their knowledge and understanding. His story is likely a familiar one for many interfaith families, and I highly recommend reading it!
I have a bad sense of direction, which plays itself out in all sorts of ways. For example, with Hanukkah beginning tonight, I face the challenge of placing and lighting the Hanukkah candles “in the right direction.” Left to right, or right to left? And when people say left, does that mean facing the Menorah, or from the Menorah’s perspective? And when do the blessings come into the picture?
Never fear. Even if you light the Hanukkiah (the special 8-branched menorah used on Hanukkah) in the wrong direction, it still counts. But posted below is an explanation for how to light the candles in the right way (”right” as in “correct”). All directional instructions are from your perspective.
The Shamash: Menorahs have a place for the shamash, the helper candle, which stands at a different height than the others (usually taller). The function of the shamash is to light the “real” candles, and you light it first, before any blessings are said.
Placement: Stand facing the Menorah. You place the candles from right to left as the nights go on. On the first night, place the first candle on your far right. On the second night, add a candle to its left (you now have candles in the two spots furthest to your right). On the third night, add a candle to its left, and so on, until the last night when you place the eighth candle to your far left.
Lighting: The newest candle gets lit first. What this means is that you light from left to right (even though placement is from right to left).
Blessings: After you light the shamash, hold and say/sing the blessings. The first two blessings are said every night; the third is said only the first night. After you’ve finished with the blessings, light the Hanukkah candles.
What’s interesting is that even the actual number of candles lit on each night was not something everyone agreed on when the holiday traditions were still forming….
The only people that think that Hanukkah is a minor festival are those who live in the oft-cloistered world of Jewish legal hermeneutics. For the rest of the American Jewish community—especially for those with children—Hanukkah is a major holiday, one that is filled with light that brightens the world during the darkest and dreariest days of winter. Regardless of the influences of the outside world—no Jewish rite or ritual is really free from such outside influences—Jews have always endeavored to illumine the world with Hanukkah light. Anytime that Jews are surrounded by darkness, they flood the world with light. Why would we expect anything different during the winter season? Thus, it is not surprising that so many families celebrate Hanukkah, second only in numbers to their springtime celebration of Passover.
The essential ritual of Hanukkah is rather simple. Light. Spinning tops. Potato pancakes and jelly doughnuts. And gifts. Even the liturgical embellishments in the worship services are just that: embellishments. Even the few added prayers do not take over the liturgy. Rather they simply add their radiant color to the rich tapestry of Jewish ritual. Deeply embedded in our celebration of Hanukkahâ€”even when it becomes extravagant in the eyes of some community leadersâ€”is the notion of what the Rabbis call hiddur mitzvah, the beautification of the sacred obligations of Judaism.
But the question for those involved in programs of Jewish continuity is how to move those who celebrate Hanukkah in the home or even in the marketplace to join the community, recognizing that they will only do so if someone reaches out and welcomes them in. The true test of any outreach endeavor extends far beyond the program itself or, in this case, after the Hanukkah candles have burned down, making sure that their light continues to brighten our lives and the lives of those around us.
The Giant Menorah Controversy has raised its head again, as reported in JTA. It usually is a debate over the public square, fueled by Chabad. While we are indeed concerned about the separation of church and state, we at JOI believe in the public celebration of Hanukkah and other holidays. After all, are we not instructed to place the Hanukkah menorah in a window so that it can be seen by those who pass by our homes—to “publicize the miracle”? But that is why we speak of public spaces (like malls, stores, etc.) and not the public square (like buildings on the Washington DC “mall”).
When a child—or an adult—walks through a shopping mall this time of year and encounters Christmas with no trace of Hanukkah, that person may feel excluded. When that same person walks through that same mall and there is a puny Hanukkah menorah alongside a large Christmas true, that person may feel puny. But when a giant Hanukkah menorah is placed next to a large Christmas tree, it sends the message that as a minority in America, he or she belongs as a full equal in our diverse society. This is particularly important for the nurturing of Jewish identity in children.
May the lights of Hanukkah illumine a path for us all in this world.
Are you looking for a fun Hanukkah arts project to engage in? Or looking to engage others? National Public Radio (NPR) is calling for creative designs of Christmas tree ornaments, Menorahs, and Kinaras. Contest organizers are encouraging relevant designs that relate to news events of this past year, while retaining basic traditional rules, such as the Menorah must “hold eight candles plus a raised ninth candle, aka the shamash in Hebrew.” The contest is sure to reach a broader spectrum of the Jewish community than traditional craft-making activities since it is run and advertised through a secular organization. But that doesn’t mean that Jewish institutions can’t piggyback on NPR’s potential reach and spread the word in trying to engage the unaffiliated and intermarried in a Jewish arts activity.
Another interesting aspect of this contest, making it remarkably accessible to would-be participants as well as observers, is the use of technology—contestants simply post pictures of their creations on Flicker for all to see. This is a perfect opportunity for viral marketing, too—people can pass on pictures of their creations, and if they’re good (or amusingly bad, like the Mel Gibson one featured above), they’ll surely be passed on to more and more and more people—thanks to NPR for spreading the light!