Hanukkah's Alight with Ironies

It was a simple, if mischievous, way to open one of those holiday stories that religion reporters write year after year: "It's beginning to look a lot like Hanukkah."

The rest of my story focused on the history of Hanukkah and the modern trends that have turned this minor holiday into one of Judaism's most important dates.

The telephone began ringing with a vengeance. Some devout Jews never made it past the first sentence and thought I was siding with those who promote Hanukkah as a "Jewish Christmas." Others thought the whole article attacked anyone who wanted to hitch a ride on the train that merchants and bureaucrats call "The Holidays."

The first group of callers stressed the message and traditions of the eight-day "Festival of Lights," which begins at sundown on Thursday (Dec. 5). The latter emphasized the reality of what it has become. Today, Hanukkah is alight with irony.

"The link with Christmas has been made and there's not much that we can do about it," said Niv Bleich, president of the on-line Jewish Communications Network (www.jcn18.com). "It's the old chicken and the egg situation and it doesn't really matter which came first. The big question now is, `What are we going to do?'"

The bottom line: How many Jews want to keep a distinctively Jewish spark alive in this season, as opposed to marching to the mall with everyone else?

The holiday in question isn't even mentioned in Hebrew scriptures. Hanukkah is based on events in 165 B.C., when Jewish rebels, led by the Maccabees, defeated their Greek and Syrian oppressors. The rite of lighting menorah candles -- one on the first day, increasing to eight -- is based on a miracle linked with this victory. Tradition says that when it came time to purify the recaptured temple, only one container of ritually pure oil could be found for its eternal flame. This one-day supply is said to have burned for eight days.

Thus, Hanukkah teaches that Jews must defend the purity of their faith, rather than heed the siren call of the dominant culture. This is a troubling message in the age of Hanukkah bushes and children pleading for taller and taller stacks of presents.

The Jewish Communication Network offers some tongue-in-cheek "Hanukkah Carols" that capture some of these paradoxes, complete with titles such as "On the First Day of Hanukkah" and "I'm Dreaming of a Bright Menorah." The inevitable "Maccabees are Coming to Town" includes these lines: "You'd best be a Jew, or suffer your fate. It does no good to assimilate. Maccabees are coming to town. They know if you're Assyrian. They know if you dig Greeks. They see you on the temple mount, consorting with Hellenistic freaks."

From there, it's only a few clicks to the on-line Jewish Mall (www.jewishmall.com), which offers everything from traditional gifts to UFO dreidels and ceramic-baseball menorahs. The site opened on Nov. 13 and one of the first large orders was from South Korea, said Bleich.

"This isn't for the Jews in New York or Brooklyn. They have a store right around the corner," he said. "But lots of Jews don't live in places like that, anymore. They can't find what they need at their local mall."

Nevertheless, there must be more to Hanukkah than different gift options, said Yosef Abramowitz, editor of Jewish Family & Life! (www.jewishfamily.com). It's important that children go to the mall -- to buy items for the poor. It's important for Jews to network with others who are striving to stay faithful. It's important that parents fight behind the scenes or co-opt modern fads to serve old causes. The times may demand Maccabean tactics.

"But let's be honest. These kinds of strategies will only appeal to a minority," he said. "Only a small percentage of Jews, and I imagine this is also true of Christians, are living lives that have much to do with the actual traditions and teachings of their faith. ... That's especially obvious this time of year."