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Voice of Experience

Voice of Experience: December 2023

Reflections on Hanukkah

Seth D Kramer

Reflections on Hanukkah Zigic

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Hanukkah has always been problematic for me. Although I had a Bar Mitzvah, my parents were not religious. However, they did have a strong cultural identification as Jews. As a result, when non-Jewish friends and acquaintances would wish them Happy Hanukkah during the Christmas season, my parents would exchange the appropriate pleasantries. But my father would silently steam. “If someone wants to wish this Jew a happy holiday,” my father would later say, referring to himself, “then they should do it during Passover, or Yom Kippur, or Rosh Hashanah. But not for some minor holiday that just happens to fall around Christmas.”

My father was not an outlier in his belief in the relative lack of significance of Hanukkah. As the website states, “Hanukkah is a relatively minor holiday from the perspective of Jewish tradition, its importance magnified in large part due to its proximity to another major December celebration featuring twinkly lights and abundant gifts.”

I had a similar version of the same conundrum. Although the public elementary school that I attended had a number of Jewish students, none of the teachers were Jewish. Back in the 1960s, Christmas was regularly celebrated in public schools. From the end of Thanksgiving until Christmas vacation (which was what winter break was called then), my elementary school had a large, fully decorated Christmas tree in the main courtyard of the school, adjacent to the cafeteria and lunch area.

Next to the Christmas tree was a smaller shrub (about ⅓ the size of the Christmas tree), with a large Star of David at its top. Across the shrub’s branches was a blue and silver streamer saying “Happy Hanukkah.” Hanging from the branches were blue or silver cutouts of dreidels. I was told this was a Hanukkah bush. When I first heard this, I was taken aback and confused. But after a while, I took it as patronizing. A Hanukkah bush is not a real thing. As reported in the NY Jewish Week, “Rabbi Shmuel Kogan says that the practice of a Chanukah bush is foolish and there is no reason for it.” The paper goes on to quote Kogan as saying, “In most cases, such practices stem from ignorance of Jewish tradition.”

As I got older, I would often wonder how all these teachers—who had all gone to college—apparently didn’t have enough contact with Jews to know that the Hanukkah  bush wasn’t part of the holiday’s tradition.

And the gift giving aspect of Hanukkah was another thing I could never quite understand. The closest thing the Hanukkah holiday has to gift giving is playing the game of dreidel. A dreidel is a four-sided top-like object. On each of the four sides of the dreidel is a Hebrew letter. It is essentially a game of chance that involves some gambling.

To play the game, each participant spins the dreidel. Depending on the side the dreidel falls on, the corresponding Hebrew letter dictates what action to take. The actions relate to the pot of money that has been generated at the start of the game. The pot of money is made up of Hanukkah gelt—money that parents dole out on Hanukkah so that their children can play dreidel. Somehow, this custom morphed into full-on, Christmas-style gift giving. My father was of the belief that this morphing was a result of greedy department stores that wanted to expand the customer base for gift purchases around Christmas. And the surrounding circumstances seem to support this conclusion.

Also, it was unclear what the gift-giving protocol was. Was it only the first night of  Hanukkah, or were gifts given each of the eight nights of the holiday? With potentially eight nights of gift receiving, Jewish kids in elementary school would  claim bragging rights for having the more robust holiday. After all, Christmas is just ONE day of getting gifts, while Hanukkah is EIGHT days of getting gifts!

In reality, I never knew of anyone who celebrated Hanukkah getting any significant gifts on all eight nights. Maybe nights one or two (and a BIG maybe for night three). But in the end, Hanukkah always paled compared to the pomp and circumstance connected to Christmas. As writer Kirstie Henry states, “For children, Hanukkah can seem underwhelming, as compared with the ‘in-your-faceness’ of Christmas.”

As such, while growing up the Christmas season never did much for me. But as I got older, that changed.

For 38 years I practiced Family Law, and I have written about the Christmas/holiday season and the Family Law practice. But I also noticed unusual behavior among the general population. During that season, people seemed to be nicer. I noticed this when I would drive, with fellow drivers being more courteous about lane changes and such. I noticed this in line at Starbucks or other retail establishments. People seemed to be smiling more. And I would frequently hear the cheerful, more politically correct salutation of “Happy Holidays.”

So even in this stressful, polarized world that we live in, if there can be a few weeks or days when the holiday spirit makes people act with “goodwill to all,” I will take it and gladly enjoy the season.