Friday, December 7, 2007 | return to: opinions


True meaning of Chanukah is not green

by jonathan tobin

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The holiday hijackers are at it again. First, Passover was transformed from an inspiring commemoration of the birth of the Jewish nation during the Exodus from Egypt into a catchall festival that celebrates the rights of every afflicted minority and fashionable cause imaginable.

Now, it's Chanukah's turn.

This year more groups are again seeking to use the Festival of Lights to force-feed the Jewish public whatever cultural or political theme appeals to them.

Some who have jumped on the ecology bandwagon, now so pervasive in American culture, want to reinvent Chanukah as a green holiday, in which energy conservation and activism against global warming are foremost in our minds.

In fact, the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs want us all to switch to more efficient "compact fluorescent light bulbs" — though perhaps what they really want is for us to stop displaying those electric Chanukah menorahs in our windows altogether.

The notion of using the idea of the Chanukah miracle of oil as a metaphor for conservation, as the JCPA claims, may be a stretch, but it is clever.

Not content to merely ride the ecology hobbyhorse this December, the mainstream JCPA also wants to use the season as a prop in its campaign to raise awareness of poverty. It is backing an initiative, called Candle of Righteousness, that seeks to teach about the needs of the less fortunate by encouraging families to donate their holiday gifts to groups that help the poor.

That's a nice idea, especially since it can assist American Jewish parents in weaning their kids away from the idea of Chanukah as a Jewish Christmas in which the toys flow for eight days instead of one.

But the good intentions and causes highlighted by some of these faux Chanukah campaigns notwithstanding, this trend is not something we should regard as entirely benign.

It is hardly a surprise that groups and religious denominations that seek to attract an increasingly assimilated Jewish population should resort to such gimmicks. Nor is it without purpose. By making Chanukah more "relevant" to a host of contemporary issues, the promoters of these themes cannot only advance the causes they favor but also can, albeit indirectly, reintroduce their audience to the powerful message of their own traditions.

The truth is, for all too many American Jews, Chanukah is merely a blue-tinsel copy of Christmas or an androgynous celebration that can blend with it as the Chrismukah cards and TV shows try to tell us.

Though the tension between the parochial Jewish aspect of our faith and its more universalist tendencies is as old as Judaism itself, Chanukah is not an empty metaphor into which non-Jewish narratives can be poured at will. It is, in fact, probably the last holiday into which we should be trying to shoehorn unrelated themes.

Far from being a Jewish version of "goodwill toward

men" or any other trendy contemporary cause, the original story of Chanukah is about something very different: the refusal of Jews to bow down to the idols of the popular culture of their day, and to remain resolutely separate and faithful to their own traditions.

Even more to the point — and so often completely eliminated from the stories we tell our kids and even ourselves — Chanukah is the story of a particularly bloody Jewish civil war.

Wicked King Antiochus and his Syrian Greeks are surely bad guys in the tale. But there's little doubt that for the original Maccabees the real villains were the many Jews who embraced assimilation into the pervasive and seductive culture of the Greek world. It was these collaborators that Mattathias and his sons really wanted to wipe out — and eventually they did just that.

Even though the descendants of the victors of this war were themselves a feckless and assimilated lot, whose misrule led eventually to domination of the country by Rome, the outcome of the original revolt has stood ever since as a warning against the dangers of discarding our faith for previously owned versions of others' beliefs.

That has to be a frightening message for American Jewry, which struggles to hold its own against the blandishments of the non-Jewish world.

Yet for all of the changes in the Jewish world that have taken place in the last 2,200 years, the message of the Maccabees is still strikingly pertinent to our current situation.

Diaspora Jewry faces enormous challenges that threaten its future via assimilation, and Israel continues to remain under siege. So, maybe what Americans should be doing is using Chanukah to highlight something that might actually resonate with its true meaning: as a centerpiece of a campaign to expand and raise the quality of Jewish education in this country.

Going green may be trendier, but surely it would be more relevant to take up the fight of the Maccabees against forces that are destroying our traditions of learning. We could do this by finally rallying our communities to support the idea that day-school Jewish education ought to be available to more than just the rich among us. Similarly, we could increase our efforts to improve the quality of the synagogue schools for the Jewish kids who are sent there.

And perhaps instead of merely changing a few light bulbs, Chanukah would also be an apt time to try to get more American Jews to actually visit Israel, rather than just talk about it, a measure that is vitally important to the future of Jewish kids.

It may be that many of us are so alienated from our Jewish roots that secular holiday themes have more meaning to us than the Jewish ones. Yet rather than surrendering to this true December dilemma, this time of year should be a reminder that it takes the extraordinary efforts, as well as the faith of ordinary people, to keep the flame of Jewish civilization burning bright in each generation.

Jonathan Tobin is executive editor of the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia, where this piece previously appeared.


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