December dilemma

Let Hanukkah be Hanukkah

The candelabra should have eight candles in a straight line with a separate holder -- usually high and in the middle -- for the "servant" candle that is used to light the others.

The purpose of Hanukkah menorahs is to publicize the miracle at the heart of the "Festival of Lights," when tradition says a one-day supply of pure oil burned for eight days after Jewish rebels liberated the temple from their Greek oppressors. Thus, most families place their menorahs in front windows facing a street.

So far, so good.

The lighting of the first candle should be at sundown on the first night of the eight-day season, which begins on Friday (Dec. 15) this year. Hanukkah candles should burn at least 30 minutes and it's forbidden to use their light for any purpose other than viewing or meditating.

Blessings are recited before the first candle is lit, starting with: "Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us by His commandments, and has commanded us to kindle the lights of Hanukkah." Each night, another candle is added -- with eight burning at the end of the season.

That's it. That's what Jews are supposed to do during Hanukkah. They're supposed to light the candles and give thanks to God.

It's all about lights shining in darkness.

"This is a simple holiday with a simple message and it isn't supposed to be all that complicated," said Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, the largest umbrella group for Orthodox Jews in North America.

"You come home from work, you light the candles, you say the blessings and then you sit down with your kids and play games with dreidels. ... It's pretty small stuff compared with all of the emotions of Passover."

Some Jewish families will sing Hanukkah songs and fry some potato pancakes called "latkes," homemade donuts or other festive foods using hot oil -- a key symbol in the season. Many parents give their children small gifts each night, such as coins or chocolates wrapped in gold foil to resemble coins.

This is where, for many, the Hanukkah bandwagon starts to get out of control. As the Jewish Outreach Institute Hanukkah website bluntly states: "Hanukkah is the most widely celebrated American Jewish holiday, possibly because it is a fun, child-centered occasion."

Everyone knows why Hanukkah keeps getting bigger and bigger, said Weinreb, who also has worked as a psychologist specializing in family issues.

"How can a Jewish kid growing up in America or anywhere else in the Western world not get swept up, to one degree or another, in the whole business of Christmas? The music is everywhere and the decorations are everywhere. Many of your school friends are having parties and they're all excited about the gifts they're going to get," he said.

"From a Jewish perspective, all of this is a rabbi's worst nightmare. You want to find a way to say, 'That's not us.' But, in the end, many people lose control."

Before you know it, someone else's Christmas tree turns into a holiday tree and, finally, into something called a Hanukkah bush.

The end result is ironic, to say the least. Hanukkah is supposed to be a humble holiday about the need for Jews to resist compromising their beliefs in order to assimilate into a dominant culture. However, for many families it has become the biggest event on the Jewish calendar -- because it is so close to the all-powerful cultural earthquake that some people still call "Christmas."

Those old-fashioned notions about giving children a few modest Hanukkah gifts have evolved into expectations of a nightly procession of toys, clothing and electronic goodies. And, in many of America's 2.5 million households with one Jewish parent and one Christian parent, the rites of the shopping mall have been blended to create the pop-culture reality called "Chrismukkah."

All of this is easy to understand and hard to resist.

"One gift a night for eight nights is just commercialism, pure and simple. That has more to do with Toys 'R' Us than it does with Judaism," said Weinreb. "Hanukkah is not the Jewish Christmas and we all know that. Hanukkah is what it is. We just need to do what we are supposed to do and let the holiday take care of itself."

About those 'secular' menorahs

When it comes to decorating tabernacles and temples, the God of Israel cares about the fine details.

Consider these Exodus instructions: "Thou shalt make a candlestick of pure gold: of beaten work shall the candlestick be made: his shaft, and his branches, his bowls, his knops, and his flowers, shall be of the same. And six branches shall come out of the sides of it; three branches of the candlestick out of the one side, and three branches of the candlestick out of the other side."

Counting the center candlestick, this created a unique candelabrum with seven lamps, a number that in scripture symbolizes holiness and completeness. The result is a shape familiar to anyone who has studied religion, liturgy and art. It is also a crucial symbol in America's debates about the role of public faith in the month of December.

"The menorah is the premier symbol of Judaism, especially if the goal is to symbolize the Jewish faith," said Steven Fine, visiting professor of Jewish history at Yeshiva University in New York City.

While many assign this role to the modern Star of David, this scholar of art and archaeology begs to differ. The weakness of the six-pointed star is also its strength, Fine explained. It has no historic meaning and, thus, can be used by every imaginable kind of Jew, from Orthodox believers to those who choose to assimilate into secular cultures.

"You could not say that about the menorah and that's the point," said Fine. "The menorah is different because of its deep roots in the Jewish faith itself. ... For the prophet Zechariah, it represented the very eyes of God watching over us in our lives. You can't get more religious than that."

And there's the rub. We live in an age in which government officials -- local, state and national -- are wrestling with holiday trees, menorahs, creches, angels, ears of corn, Santa statues, plastic snowmen and a host of other secular and sacred objects that church-state partisans keep dragging into the public square. The result is what columnist Jonah Goldberg calls "Christmas Agonistes," a condition produced by some cliffhanger decisions at the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1980s.

There are few guidelines carved in stone. The court did establish what many activists call the "reindeer rules" that allow displays of religious symbols on public property as long as they are surrounded by other symbols, which are usually borrowed from pop culture.

Another ruling said that most nativity scenes are "religious" while most menorahs are "cultural." Following this logic, many educators forbid the singing of religious Christmas songs, while teaching students to sing Hanukkah songs about the "mighty miracle" that allowed Jewish rebels long ago to defeat their Greek and Syrian oppressors.

Jewish tradition teaches that when it came time to open the recaptured temple, only one container of pure oil could be found for the holy lamp. However, this one-day supply burned for eight days. Thus, menorahs used at Hanukkah -- which begins this year at sundown on Dec. 25 -- have eight candles or lamps.

It's easy, said Fine, to understand why some people have their doubts about court rulings that say the menorah is now a "secular" or "cultural" symbol.

In his book "Art and Judaism in the Greco-Roman World," the historian notes that through the centuries: "The menorah became the marker of Jewish religious space, Jewish bread, Jewish tombs, occasionally Jewish homes and -- when worn as jewelry -- Jewish bodies. This practice continued from late antiquity through the Middle Ages and into modern times. ...

"Mosaics and screens that in a church context might be decorated with a cross were adorned with menorahs in synagogues -- and were often made by the same artisans for both religions. The menorah and the cross were thus twinned symbols, both serving their communities as markers separating them from one another."

At the same time, it is also hard to understand why some religious believers now celebrate when courts declare their sacred symbols safe, neutral and tame, said Fine.

"Who could have imagined anyone claiming that the menorah is a secular symbol? Then again," he said, "who could anyone have imagined that we would ever face this kind -- this degree -- of secularization. That's something for Jews to think about."