Jonathan Safran Foer, the literary wunderkind who is the author of two widely acclaimed novels-- Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close--published a “Beginners Guide to Hanukkah” in the New York Times on December 22nd. I don’t read the Times regularly, but I do get email listings of any articles that contain the words “Jew” or “Jewish” in them--which, when I have time, I go through. But I miss a lot of them--so I was actually alerted to this particular article through a couple of letters to the editor, that complained it was offensive to both Jews and Christians.
Eager to keep myself informed on anything that my fellow Jews find insulting, I read the article, and found it quite funny, and in many ways, poignant. I enjoyed the article because it articulated certain truths about Jewish participation in the holiday season.
Many Jews have become so estranged from their heritage that for them, Hanukkah is December’s stepchild, the holiday that will always get second billing. When I was working as a reporter for The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, I did a story on how Hebrew Schools that have a high proportion of students from intermarried families teach Hanukkah.
Traditionally, Hanukkah is based on a very strong anti-assimilation message--the rag-tag army of Macabbees fought against the Syrian Hellenists, because they were encouraging the Jews to abandon their heritage, and were defiling all that was holy and spiritual for the Jewish people. The teachers I spoke to tended to gloss over this Hanukkah theme in deference to their students’ families, and instead concentrated on how Jews could celebrate Hanukkah in the Christmas-saturated season. One teacher recommended that her students bake their favorite Christmas cookie recipe but cut the cookies with Hanukkah cookie cutters. She also counseled people on what to do about the thorny issue of wrapping presents in Christmas or Hanukkah wrapping paper.
Obviously, if Jews felt connected enough to their religion and connected enough to the real message of Hanukkah those tips would be unnecessary. The Safran Foer article seemed to be aware of the Jewish ambivalence towards Hanukkah and the deleterious effect this has on our nationhood. This is why, in a tongue-in-cheek stab at Jewish pride, the article establishes Hanukkah as the premier December holiday, the one that came first (it actually did come first), and the one that Christmas is derivative of.
But more importantly the article also addresses issues of Jewish identity. What does being a Jew look like in this secular world? Safran Foer writes “What does a Jewish home look like? How can Jews identify without resorting to imitation, kitsch, or the display of ceremonial objects?”
These are good questions. A traditional Jewish home has its own special vibe, warmth, and power, and is unrelated to imitation of the secular world. It is also not dependent on the display of “kitsch or ceremonial objects.” Its flavor is pervasive, and permeates not only the walls of the house, but also all its inhabitants.
It looks something like this: In all aspects of the home, there is a recognition of the holiness and spirituality of life. Thus all members of the household, from the very young to the very old, are honored and respected.
Education is seen primarily in moral terms. The goal of learning is to become a better person, and to better understand the ways to serve God.
Marital peace and household harmony is the goal of all relations. Thus, the mother and father love and respect each other, and always behave in a way that shows that respect. Children grow up knowing that their lives are not just about purchasing the latest X-Box or watching the latest movie, but instead understanding that unrelated to materialism and the destructive messages of the pervasive culture, there is a higher purpose to their existence.
This is, of course, an ideal, and many Jewish homes fall short. Nevertheless, during this Hanukkah season, as the lights from the Menorahs placed by the window or door are illuminating the winter nights, perhaps it is important to think about how the message of Hanukkah with its steadfast appreciation of the importance of spirituality and holiness, can bring light into our own homes.
To view Safran Foer's article, go here.
To view Letters to the Editor about it, click here.