After a decade of Hanukahs here, one thing about the way the Festival of Lights is celebrated in Israel never ceases to amaze me: the total absence of Christmas. In the States, Hanukah’s relation to Christmas is of crucial concern. The more the two holidays overlap, the more that Jews will be celebrating their winter holiday at the same time that the majority of Americans are celebrating theirs. In Israel, Christmas is simply not on the radar screen for most Israelis, and so Hanukah goes it alone.
Since I grew up in the States and only moved here at the age of 36, I can not help but think of Hanukah in relation to Christmas. And so I know that this year Hanukah is very “early” (beginning on Tuesday night December 4)—and I also know what this means in America. An early Hanukah is disconcerting to many America Jews. It’s sort of like a secret Marano holiday: the Jews are celebrating in their homes while the outside world is filled with anticipation of Christmas. You are wished “Merry Christmas” all throughout your holiday—though December 25th is several weeks away. There are print and broadcast media pieces on Hanukah, and schools and offices sprout paper menorahs, but these cannot put a dent in the general feeling of Christmas that pervades the outside world.
As is the case every year, Hanukah in Israel is always on time. It is never early or late. And while Israeli life is geared toward the Gregorian calendar (so that, unlike Christmas, even knowledgeable Israelis have to do some figuring in order to calculate the first night of Hanukah), one can gage the date of Hanukah by the availability and variety of sufganiyot (donuts). Sufganiyot start making their appearance in October, shortly after the conclusion of Judaism’s Fall holidays. As Hanukah nears, donut makers get more ambitious both in terms of quantity and quality—augmenting the traditional strawberry jelly filling with butterscotch, chocolate, halva, and even guava and passion fruit, as well as experimenting with more sophisticated donut coatings (like carob powder or ground brown sugar) rather than the usual powdered sugar.
I have to admit that left to its lonesome, there’s some drama missing in a Hanukah without Christmas. After all, as our prayers remind us, Hanukah celebrates a Jewish victory of the weak and the few over the strong and the many. The spirit of Hanukah comes to life more in a country where you have to fight for it, where you have to insist on its legitimate place on the cultural spectrum. When you put your hanukiyah (menorah) on your window sill in the diaspora, you feel that you are making an important religious statement, that you are doing something to spread the Hanukah spirit. The six or seven hanukiyot that we light on our window sill in Givat Ze’ev look nice, but we don’t quite sense that we have just done an act worthy of the Maccabees.
This is not to say that life here in the Jewish state is without drama. A number of our Arab neighbors help make life in Israel exciting in a Maccabean way all throughout the year. But the Jewish state rather than the Jewish individual is the primary setting for this drama. And the stakes are much much higher than whether or not to get offended if someone wishes you a Merry Christmas. Personally, I can report that the stakes in my immediate family have just moved up a notch: On Wednesday November 14 my daughter Rebecca joined her brother Nathan as a soldier in Israel’s Defense Forces. Happy Hanukah.
Copyright 2007, Teddy Weinberger