I grew up in Texas, one of very few Jews in the public schools I began attending as of fourth grade. When winter rolled around, the red and green construction paper would inevitably flow forth, with the accompanying directive to make “holiday decorations.” Naturally, my classmates made pine trees and jolly stockings, and I had to explain why I was making funny spinning tops instead. I think my mom still has—and hangs—those red and green dreydlakh each year. When it was time for the winter holiday pageant, upon instruction to wear “holiday colors,” I would show up in blue and white (although there’s no compelling reason why these are “Hanuka” colors more so than any other color in the rainbow), where my classmates would come bedecked in red knit sweater vests and green and black velvet dresses with puffy gold lamé sleeves. After many rounds of “Jingle Bells” and “Sleigh Ride” (for which I made the cardboard sleigh one year), I’d lead my friends in a stilted circle dance for the one Hanuka song they would include.
Although it was hard to ignore the sense of exclusion brought about by the utter dominance of Xmas propaganda and greetings everywhere I turned from Thanksgiving until December 25, the “otherness” of our culture and celebrations also felt like a source of specialness. Our family had our own merry Hanuka traditions; we decked our halls with gleaming decorations, a growing pile of presents slowly accumulating under a giant dreydl my mother made from a shipping box. We brought down, polished, and lit the Hanuka menora my grandfather Bar Kokhba Kahanov brought with him when he immigrated to the U.S. over 100 years ago.
Fast forward a few decades, to when all three of my brothers had married lovely women who come from non-Jewish cultural and religious backgrounds. (Ironically, my sister became a Rabbi, and I became a secular Jewish leader or vegvayzer/madrikha. We both married Jews.) No small amount of hand-wringing accompanied my brothers’ choices of partners—yes, we love all three of these women who have contributed so much richness and joy to our family. But the generations-old bias against outsiders—the goyim and their foreign, dominant customs—dies hard. My family struggled to interweave the diversity in its growing ranks. How could we celebrate these choices of partner and still embrace our heritage? I had no idea how to even begin to address this seemingly insurmountable task.
Like human beings, holidays have also evolved
Until I found Sholem—a secular, progressive Jewish community in Los Angeles—for which I have taught, developed curriculum, and grown as a leader for over 15 years. Perhaps most importantly, however, through my involvement in Sholem, I have come to locate myself and the Jewish part of my identity (for our identities are all multifaceted) in the larger context of human culture’s evolution on this planet.
You see, once we move farther back into humanity’s shared past, beyond the Maccabees and the magic oil, what is Hanuka/Khanike but a joyous celebration of lights in the darkest of winter (the earliest form thereof known simply as “Neyrot” or “lights“)? In fact, once we dig down to the roots of all winter holidays—from Hanuka/Khanike to Christmas to Diwali to Northern European pagan solstice celebrations—it becomes clear that, at their core, they are all of a kind: hopeful, defiant expressions of the brightness and tenacity of the human spirit in the face of all that is cold, dark, and frightening. In making such a connection, we use our Jewishness to unite us with the hopes, dreams, triumphs, and tragedies of all humanity.
When I recognized the links through time, passed down lador vador—from generation to generation—linking my culture to all the cultures of the world, I began to see the symbols of the Xmas tree and my Hanuka menora as one and the same. I could embrace my extended family and all of their customs without antagonism, guilt, arrogance, or reservation. Po-tay-to, po-tah-to.
In other words, to paraphrase Sholem’s educational director Hershl Hartman, as outlined in his “Credo for a Secular Bas/Bar Mitsve:”
On deconstructing and reconstructing traditions
The tricky thing about deconstructing the historical, folk, and pagan origins of modern cultural rituals is that I can no longer practice by rote the customs in which I was duly indoctrinated and that I fulfilled dutifully throughout my youth, albeit with many uncomfortable unanswered questions.
To wit, some years after embracing and studying the secular approach to being Jewish, I learned a bit more about the blessings over the Hanuka candles, which dictate that God has “commanded” Jews to light the lights of Hanuka. In actual fact, despite the fact that the person offering the blessing may or may not believe in God, or at the very least in a God who is “King of the Universe” (as all Jewish blessings begin), there is absolutely no metntion of any such commandment anywhere in Jewish scripture. It’s a fabrication from a much later time.
Ever the free-thinkers, my husband and I ditched the blessings, standing in awkward silence after lighting the lamp each year. We made an attempt to offer a dedication (indeed, Hanuka means “rededication”) to each candle, but this did not really fill the gap left by the missing blessings, which we had both learned and sung in our families, although I was always the one remembering the bulk of the words (and the melodies too). A few years later, I decided that, as a secular Jew, I am free to choose how I practice my culture mindfully, and that we could indeed be secular, understand the inherent contradictions and disagreements with the blessings, and sing them anyway, as a meaningful ritual that links us to our past.
A few weeks ago, I shared this story at the Sholem community’s annual “December differences” discussion, after which Hershl issued me a challenge.
And so I did. With a little help from my husband, a fellow secular Jewish leader/vegvayzer/madrikh. I share this secular compromise with you; feel free to sing it, teach it to your children, and use it to warm your spirits mindfully as you celebrate this year’s festivals of lights amidst all the manifestations of darkness that surround us.
Secular blessing over the Hanuka candles
We bless these flames in the night
On our candles flickering so bright
When winter’s darkness falls across the land
Hopeful people rededicate
The lights of Hanuka
© 2018 Rebekka & Ross Helford
Secular shehekheyanu/blessing for special occasions
We bless these flames in the night
On our candles flickering so bright
For all the old things
And all the new things
And all the blessings
Bringing us to this day
© 2018 Rebekka & Ross Helford
You can celebrate anything you want
Ever since the Xmas decorations came out (the day after Halloween, really?), my social media streams have been awash with agonizing laments like these from Jewish parents across the country:
- “My son feels like he doesn’t belong because there are tons of Xmas movies but no Hanuka movies. I don’t know what to tell him.”
- “My 4-year-old came home from preschool with a letter she dictated to her teacher. It said, ‘Dear Santa, I’m sad that you don’t visit my house because we celebrate Hanuka.’ I felt so bad that I told her Santa will visit us, and now I feel so guilty.”
- “My wife really wants us to have an Xmas tree, but if my mother sees it, she’ll flip out. I want to honor my wife’s traditions, but I can’t help feeling I’m betraying my culture.”
- “My partner and I have really different religious and cultural backgrounds. It was never a big deal before, but now we have a kid, and whenever we try to discuss how we’re going to handle the winter holidays, we get stuck in a huge argument. I don’t know what to do.”
- “I want to help my Jewish family get into the holiday spirit, but there are so many Xmas songs and no good Hanuka songs, especially not on the radio.”
I feel for all of these families. If you’ve read this far, you know I’ve been there myself. And you also know my proposed answer to all of this suffering: understand why we do what we do, then choose mindfully. In addition to learning more about Hanuka, you can also learn about the history of modern observances of Xmas (the modern, secular, commercialized version, which I distinguish from Christmas).
- Where did (our current north American version of) Santa Claus come from? And what role did Coca Cola play in our current iteration of this character)? What subtle moralistic messages are communicated in the Santa/Elf on the Shelf/naughty vs. nice trope and do we agree with them?
- Why are all the trappings and trimmings of Xmas congruent with Northern European weather and customs, and not the desert climate of Bethlehem, where Jesus Christ was (allegedly) born?
- How did the date of December 25th become definitively identified as the date of Jesus’s birth (which, not coincidentally, was the Romans’ identified birthdate of the god Saturn, as well as the birthdate of the chief god of their predecessors, the Zoroastrians)?
Once you’ve taken a deeper dive into these customs and traditions, you’ll probably find, as I did, that all roads lead to our ancient, pre-agricultural roots. There, as hunter-gatherers, we were all responding in awe with the best tools we had available (think sympathetic magic, not the scientific method) to the strangely shortening days caused by axial tilt.
And then, my dear friends, you are free to choose. Feel empowered. You can have your latkes and eat them too.
- Invite Santa into your home. Or don’t.
- Watch an Xmas movie. Or watch any movie you want. Or make your own holiday movie. Or turn off those screens and spend some quality time with the family.
- Learn some rocking Hanuka songs (may I suggest you start with Flory Jagoda’s super-catchy Ladino “Ocho Kandelikas?”) or identify songs that resonate with your own understanding of this season. Sing whichever Xmas songs you like (after all, the best ones were all written by secular Jews).
- Put up both a tree and a menora. Or one or the other. Or neither.
- Rejoice in the overwhelming ubiquity of Xmas iconography, from the in-store radio top 20 loop (“All I Want for Christmas Is You,” anyone?) to the Hallmark Channel, to the snowflake and holly decorations lining every store window. Or rejoice in the relative non-colonization of Hanuka, giving those who celebrate ample room to choose exactly how to celebrate and what makes this festival meaningful to them personally and culturally. Or do both.
Because, as John Lennon sings in The Beatles’ “Dig a Pony,” you can celebrate anything you want.
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Rebekka Helford is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Los Angeles, California. With over a decade of experience working with parents and young children, Rebekka specializes in short-term intensive parenting consultation, using a variety of tools including home, office, and school visits to help families navigate developmental hiccups and get back on track. Click here to schedule an appointment or contact Rebekka with a question – who knows, she might even answer it in her next post!
what a beautiful and thoughtful post on a topic that is I am sure relatable to many. How do we honor our own traditions while recognizing others and at the same time coming up with unique and personal ways to observe? How creative!
This can be a seemingly innocuous topic, how to celebrate holidays, yet it is so loaded and can impact self-esteem and identity for years to come. Thank you for this wonderful contribution!