by Joy Resmovits
I’m going to tell you a secret.
I love Christmas music. When I hear the opening strains of “Silent Night,” I hum along. Play me “White Christmas,” and I’m a goner. It simply can’t be helped. The music is beautiful, and, well, most Chanukah music — with the exception of the satire songs my brother’s a cappella group releases, of course — is not it for me. Perhaps Jewish composers didn’t have much left to give after writing such Christmas hits as “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “The Christmas Song,” and “Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!”
There. I said it.
I bet you expected something more sordid. I grew up in a Jewish Modern Orthodox home, one where we weren’t allowed to celebrate Halloween due to its pagan origins, let alone Christmas. We couldn’t even say it because the name acknowledged the existence of another deity, threatening the faith we profess to ours. If we must refer to it, I recall one teacher saying, call it “X-Mas.”
When I revealed my truth to my mother, she laughed, saying that Joseph — my namesake and great- grandfather — would sit on the porch of his Bronx, New York home every winter humming “Silent Night.” He was a Polish immigrant who brought his faith to the new world despite all the adversity he’d faced, even serving as the president of two synagogues at the same time. Still, he couldn’t shake his love for those songs.
Chanukah is a tough one for me, and not just because of its slim musical offerings. As (a version of) the story goes, Seleucid empire monarchs outlawed Jewish practice and raided our Temple, erecting an altar to Zeus there. After a group of fighting Jews known as the Maccabees regained control of the Temple, they found only one jar of pure oil. That small bit of oil managed to keep the menorah, or lamp, burning for eight days. (My Chanukah candles only stay lit for 30 minutes, so yes, this is a Big Deal.) And so it was declared that for eight days in the lunar month of Kislev, we’d celebrate our perseverance, the longevity of that oil, and generally be happy.
This is a pleasant story. The only problem: It’s not a particularly important holiday by strictly religious standards. As I wrote a few months ago, we get the heavy stuff done early in the fall, with the liturgy of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur referring to the atonement needed to be written in the “book of life” — a far more serious matter than Santa’s naughty or nice lists, coming as it does with musings about who will live or die.
Given Chanukah’s proximity to Christmas, it’s become the best-known and arguably most popular Jewish holiday. I often find myself having to explain that no, it’s not our big one, and that even people who are observant don’t have any of the sabbath-like restrictions that come with the more serious ones.
The portrayal and commercialization of Chanukah often make me think of the benefits and limits of our representation in mainstream culture. It feels like a Catch 22: We want to be seen, but in the process of translating a very complex religion with multiple, conflicting interpretations into popular culture, something gets lost. Because there have been Jewish people portrayed in TV shows and movies — not always by Jews, but that’s a whole other conversation — people know more about our culture. But because most mainstream portrayals paint us with the broadest of strokes, like in Adam Sandler’s “Chanukah Song” on Saturday Night Live (or Shylock in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, for that matter) viewers are left with a distortedly simplified version — one that’s made to appeal to people who may have formed all their ideas about Judaism without having met one of us.
This year, I’m trying to strip Chanukah down to its core meaning and get past my hangups. But the only way out is through. So let’s talk about it.
Even among our small numbers, there are countless ways to relate to Jewish traditions. Many Jewish people who don’t identify as observant grew up with a Chanukah bush or celebrating the winter holidays together with their friends observing Christmas. And I know that there’s going to be some bleeding of traditions. Ugly Chanukah sweaters are cute, and I love a good meme (or Hallmark movie. We got one last year!).
What does cross the line for me: Corporate America is not doing basic Google research when trying to sell me items that honor my religious holiday. Bed, Bath & Beyond — the patron retailer of my interior decorations — hurt my heart when it released a pillow that read, “‘Why is this night different from all other nights? Happy Hanukkah.’” Literally speaking, it makes no sense because we are talking about eight nights that are exactly the same except for the number of candles you light. What’s worse: That’s a line from a prayer you say on PASSOVER. That would be like me putting “He Has Risen” on a Christmas blanket. An easily avoidable error. As Evelyn Frick noted in the publication Hey Alma, BB&B was founded by Jewish people.
Then there was a pillow with a reindeer whose antlers ended in blue candles, saying “Oh deer, Hanukkah is here.” Nope. Rudolph assists Santa, not Judah Maccabee (or, for that matter, the Chanukah armadillo.)
I also can’t stand when a company melds our holiday with another religious one, beyond the fun superficial cultural markers. (See above, extreme sensitivity to perceptions of idol worship.) One pillow said something like “Falalalallamukah,” with a picture of a llama. While I have a soft spot for camelids, I don’t love a snippet of a song that tells us to “troll the ancient Yuletide carol” on a decoration that references a Jewish holiday. (As of publication, these pulchritudinous pillows seem to no longer be on the BB&B website.)
Frick summed up my uneasy feelings about these offensive fluffy objects: “I find it hard to believe that the designers at BB&B had no resources with which to fact-check their Hanukkah decor,” she wrote. “What is most irksome to me is that the group of people who designed, approved, and made this pillow clearly attempted to profit off of Jewishness without respect for our traditions.”
Chanukah is simultaneously overhyped and also lacking in attention that’s related to its authentic core. My friend Mikhail Zinshteyn recently tweeted about a supermarket advertisement that purported to celebrate all holidays. “Either take inclusion seriously or don’t bother at all,” he said. “You can’t just slap a menorah in the background next to a Christmas tree (!?) and hawk f–king shellfish (!?!?), a no-no in Jewish custom. Do it right or don’t even try.”
Coming from cities with much bigger Jewish populations, it does sometimes feel like there’s not a ton going on here for our Festival of Lights. One bright spot: I just got home from a Chanukah gathering at the Royal Room in Columbia City. There were latkes — I forgot to mention, to honor the oil, we are supposed to eat fried food, including these delectable potato patties — dreidels, and a Chanukah attire contest. Competitors sported a dress with a Chanukah pattern, a holiday appropriate llama sweater, and a full tinsel menorah, replete with working lights.
That said, there is something especially sweet about recognizing a holiday that centers on light and heat in a place as dark as Seattle. I moved here from Los Angeles, and moving from sunny and 70 to dark and moist has made the late fall and winter months here difficult for me.
One Chanukah commandment is “Pirsumei Nissa,” Aramaic for publicizing the miracle. We’re supposed to have menorahs in our windows, where passersby can see them. I live on the ground floor, where the only passersby are trees, rats, and birds, so the candles are truly for my benefit alone. And that means I pay them more attention.
As I lit my menorah on Thursday evening, the fifth night, I finally jogged myself out of the repetitive monotony of a religious activity we do for eight nights in a row and found myself thinking about the blessings we make on the candles.
In Hebrew, the second blessing goes: …. Sheasah nisim l’avotenu, bayamim hahem, bazman hazeh. Most official translations say it means something like this: “We praise God for performing miracles for our ancestors in ancient times, in this season.” When translating each word as literally as possible into English, I started to think about its meaning as praising God for performing miracles “for our forefathers, in those days, in this time.”
Here’s why it matters — and keep in mind, I am certainly no exegetical scholar. While the words “bazman hazeh” could certainly be referring to a specific time of year, I like to think that they could also be evoking modern times. The word “zman” is the common Hebrew word for time, after all. (To be sure, there’s no conjunction, which makes my interpretation a little tougher to square.) This means we are thanking God for the miracles of the past and the miracles he is conducting right now.
As I lit that fifth candle, its wick leaning left, I thought about all the invisible miracles I take for granted: the science to create a vaccine, air travel to eventually visit my family again, free boxes from USPS that enabled me to send my 2-year-old niece a killer Chanukah gift.
Then I thought about the miracles we still need badly: That the vaccine will ultimately deliver the thing we hoped for and end this pandemic fully. That omicron will respond to it. That people will stop dying from COVID-19 but also from senseless violence, like my close friend’s young brother and students in Oxford, Michigan recently did, or that our country will find a way to make sure everyone holds onto their rights.
Until then, I’m just a girl, lighting her menorah, listening to Bing Crosby croon a Christmas song written by a man called Israel Isidore Beilin. You probably know him as Irving Berlin.
By the way: I later learned that this holiday season is an important one in my family. There was great-grandpa Joseph. My grandparents got married on Christmas Day. I was born 10 days before the holiday, and much to my mother’s dismay, the nurses celebrated my arrival by hanging a red Christmas bow atop my bassinet.
She eventually got it swapped for a blue Chanukah bow, but truly, what else should she have expected after naming a December baby “Joy”?
Joy Resmovits is an award-winning journalist based in Seattle whose work has focused on special education, educational equity, other social issues. At The Seattle Times, she led the first newspaper team in America to cover the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on schooling. Recently, she started working as senior editor, local impact at The Trace, a national newsroom covering gun violence.
Featured image is attributed to Karin Lewis (Bookatz) under a Creative Commons 2.0 license.
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