Friday, December 14, 2012

The Rabbi Speaks: Chanukah

Here's the script from last week's "The Rabbi Speaks" on Chanukah.

Last week, while on my regular stop into the Comic Book Shop on Marsh Rd., I found myself looking at the kids’ racks. Elishai, my son, who’s in kindergarten, has been on a big kick practicing his reading, and loving comics and superheroes, was hoping I’d bring him home something. So along with my usual pulls, I grabbed a Green Lantern book to share with my kid. 
Later that night, after dinner and homework, we settled into reading his new comic, and we discovered that it was in fact, a Chanukah book. Here was Hal Jordan, the Green Lantern, helping aliens named Mattathias, Judah and Maccabee of the Hammer tribe defeat other aliens of some distant planet, all while the Green Power Ring holds out for eight days with only a single day’s charge. Latkes are consumed, lights are lit, and the universe is saved. 
 My son, obviously, loved it. Here was a Chanukah-specific holiday comic book where the festival of lights appeared not as an effort in tokenism in an otherwise Christmas-themed story, nor merely as a paean to diversity to satisfy some focus group, but with its own integrity. And the fact that this was being sold in a comics shop, rather than some cheap freebie created for distribution in a Jewish school or synagogue or JCC, made it all the more amazing to me. Of course, Jewish themes have appeared in comics for decades—anyone who’s taken my class at the JCC or read Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay knows that Jewish writers and artists essentially began the medium. But rarely were those themes so overt, the exception being ‘serious’ graphic novels like Maus and ‘A Contract With God’. Yet here was kid’s comic, a ‘normal’ comic with a proudly Jewish theme, well written and well-drawn, meant for a popular audience. 
I’m old enough to remember when Chanukah first started appearing in the public sphere, and it was usually cringeworthy. In the school ‘winter concert’—and I remember when they were Christmas concerts—the band would throw in ‘Rock of Ages’ or “I Have a Little Dreidle” or if we were really lucky, ‘Ocho Candelikas’ around ‘Jingle Bell Rock’ and ‘Good King Wenceslas’. If there was a special Christmas episode of a TV show, the one designated Jewish character would get a throwaway line about Chanukah. Slowly, though, you started seeing Menorahs in McDonald’s commercials and in places of business and government, Chanukah candles for sale at Target, and the like. Adam Sandler’s Chanukah song might be nearly 15 years old and pretty trivial, but it set off a rash of popular musicians writing Chanukah songs.  Sometimes this made for strange combinations; at some point someone has sent you the picture of Hams on display at Walmart advertised as “delicious for Chanukah”. This year one Tablet writer wrote about seeing an explicitly Jewish Star of David Christmas tree topper advertised “for interfaith families” in the Skymall Catalogue.
All this fills me with wonder, but also gives me pause. It is amazing to me that my son now grows up in a world where, yes, he is aware that he’s in the minority, but the idea of a Jewish comic book is normal for him. More to the point, for most of his classmates, Judaism is rarely as strange or exotic as it was for my non-Jewish friends when I was a child. But especially at the holiday season, when perhaps we as Jews are even more aware of our minority status, the idea that Chanukah is becoming increasingly homogenized, worries me. 
Chanukah as we experience it now is a sweet little holiday: we eat some fried stuff, light some lights, exchange some gifts and call it a day, but has gone through tremendous upheaval. To use Arthur Waskow’s language, The Book of Maccabees makes it clear that, in addition to being a rededication of the Temple, it was originally a ‘rerun’ of Sukkot for the Maccabean rebels who, in their war with the Assyrian Greeks were unable to celebrate the festival. Since that first Chanukah it has evolved at various stages to be a celebration of Jewish imperial might and Jewish independence, a story of martyrdom and eternal reward for those who maintained faith unto death, a commemoration of God’s power and how one can maintain faith and light even in times of darkness and hiding, a political statement for early Zionists longing for Jewish sovereignty, and now a Winter Solstice holiday celebrated along Christianity’s great holiday. Until recently, it never held the power in Judaism of, say, a Rosh Hashanah or a Passover, nor was it ever meant to.  A post-biblical commemoration filled with small presents and games and fried food, it has achieved much greater standing than ever.
And for many Jews and non-Jews alike, this is problematic, or even, dare I say it, a ‘shande’. For conservatives who see a ‘war on Christmas’, and even liberals like Garrison Keillor of A Prarie Home Companion, Chanukah has become a target, a way to vent their spleen over the loss of religiosity surrounding Christmas. After all, it’s not just Jews going to the movies and out for Chinese these days. And for Jews, there is the fear that these two very different holidays—Christmas and Chanukah— will minimize our differences in ways that make meaningful interfaith dialogue even more difficult, as non-Jews get confused over the meaning of Chanukah and more Jewish-star tree toppers and Chanukah bushes confound a landscape.  Who hasn’t been asked whether Chanukah is the Jewish Christmas and had to use every facial muscle to prevent the eyeroll of doom? 
It’s clear, however, that there’s no turning back. We’re long passed the point of tokenism or euphemism, of occasional characters or a Festivus for the Rest of us. We are beyond the age of giant menorahs in Times Square and White House Chanukah parties and Peter Yarrow songs, and Blues Clues Chanukah Books and the occasional page 18 article showing a Jewish family playing Dreidle. There are Pandora and Spotify Chanukah channels, sexy Chanukah songs (seriously, Michele Citron, look it up), latke recipes in every cooking magazine, and every imaginable appearance in popular culture, to say nothing of the fact that you can buy a chanukiah—a really nice one—at most department stores, even in Delaware. Chanukah is clearly here to stay, not just as a Jewish holiday but as an American experience. 
So how do we make it meaningful? By remembering that, if Chanukah is to avoid being a Christmas-equivalent, we still give the holiday its due. Let Chanukah have integrity all its own, emphasizing the values as distinct from the values of other holidays at this time of year. The word Chanukah means dedication; we call this holiday ‘Chanukah’ because we remember the Maccabees rededicating the ancient temple, defiled by those bent on assimilation at all costs. Remembering this, we can rededicate ourselves to our highest values; to allow the light of the holiday and its hopefulness to banish the darkness of cynicism. 
The Green Lantern has an oath. The one we’re familiar with goes In brightest day, in blackest night, No evil shall escape my sight Let those who worship evil's might, Beware my power, Green Lantern's light. But the original read  ..and I shall shed my light over dark evil. For the dark things cannot stand the light, Just as Green Lantern’s oath declares that light shall banish the darkness of evil, may we come to see Chanukah in a new light, not as a “Jewish Christmas”, but as a truly American holiday.


  1. Have you seen the Jewish Comix Anthology? No Hanukkah stories in it, but there is a Yom Kippur one, as well as a dybbuk story, golem stories, and stories with rabbis.

    I'd love to read what you think of it and maybe you can share it with Elishai when he's older.

    1. The website for the comic is