A few years back, the first night of Hanukkah fell the day after Thanksgiving, which meant for our family that our youngest son Ben had spent one long dinner with his parents already that weekend. By that time, my husband and I had returned from our non-shopping day riding around the middle Georgia countryside as far away from malls as possible.
Ben had already gone off with his friends: “I’m at Evelyn’s birthday party,” he told us by voice mail. “Be back by curfew.”
Undaunted, I called him back, reminding him it was time to light the Menorah, say the first night’s blessing, open one small gift.
“That’s OK,” he told me. “I’ll catch it tomorrow.”
Now, truth is that Hanukkah lasts eight days. We could “catch it” the next night, or the next night, or the next. After all, I was already tired from one holiday, one ritual meal. How little I would feel like making yet another turkey, or even a roast chicken, to go with the mounds of oily potato pancakes, the latkes, that are traditionally served. Let alone doing a grocery store run to buy the applesauce and the sour cream and the salads and the desserts.
If you want Hanukkah tonight, I finally told Ben, you better do it yourself. And he did.
Instead of it being a holy, observant occasion or a gracious special meal, I had given it over to the care and literal feeding of my teenage son.
So the latkes came from boxes and the applesauce jar went straight to the table, along with the mismatched plates. The roast chicken came from Publix. The salad dressing was whatever was left at the bottom of a bottle. The napkins, paper. The candle holders empty.
And yet… and yet it was in many ways the most vibrant and meaningful Hanukkah celebration ever, this haphazard feast with its misshapen potato pancakes and ginger ale toasts. This crowded, noisy table full of multi-faith and multi-racial adolescents who stopped to say the Hanukkah blessing and to light the second night’s candle in two family Menorahs.
Bless the source of all life who commands us to kindle the Hanukkah lights.
There were three Jewish teens at the table, an African-American, and two Christian kids. It is a rare experience for those Jewish children to be in the majority at a gathering. There are very few Jewish families with children in the small Southern town we live in. Up until World War II, school was held on Saturdays, partly, we have learned, to discourage Jews from moving there.
The motto for our town is that it is a place of homes, schools, and churches — with a classic steeple on the logo. Not only the baccalaureates but the high school graduations are held in one of the big churches. The Christmas tree is lit on the lawn of the First Baptist Church where our son went to Boy Scouts before that became too uncomfortable and unconscionable. The school band and choir concerts offer a full repertoire of Christmas music, not just the more innocuous holiday songs, but the birth of the savior came to save us from our sins variety, which all the kids must play, which all the kids must sing.
Now, somewhere later down on the program they always sing or play a Hanukkah song about playing with the dreidel, the special tops that are used in a gambling game. Most school children learn somewhere along the way that this Hanukkah holiday is kind of a Jewish Christmas.
The Jewish kids light candles and get their presents every night.
They probably get more gifts that way, some kids guess. Go figure.
But, on the other hand, ordinarily their Christmas is already over long before the real Christian one, and they can’t have trees, so Santa Claus skips them. Empty stockings on December 25th and nothing to do.
Except that this year Hanukkah is quite late in the lunar Calendar, starting Christmas night and lasting until the New Year. We will scramble to finish our gift exchanges and carol trolling in time to switch religious and cultural gears.
That’s Hanukkah to most non-Jewish children (and adults), and as a young child growing up in a very nominally Jewnitarian household, that’s pretty much all I knew as well. Later on, in Unitarian Sunday School, in one of those comparative holidays and holy days classes, I was taught that Hanukkah is a miracle story like all kinds of other religions. If the Christian gospels had their walking on water and loaves and fishes miracles, Judaism had its story of a time when there was not enough oil for the lamps in the Temple, but even so, the lamps stayed lit for eight days. How the love and need for light is universal.
My sons learned in Jewish Sunday School another part of the Hanukkah story. The part about how Judas Maccabee led a revolt against the Greek King of Syria. And for a change, the Jewish army won. So Hanukkah was a celebration of a rare military victory by an underdog people. And the miraculously lit lamps were a kind of sign of holy victory.
A victory documented — as much as any of these ancient writings are historical truth — in texts, like first Maccabees.
While this version of the Hanukkah story certainly grabbed the attention of the boys in these classes, their anti-war activist mother never much liked it, no matter how conflicted I have become on the solutions to conquests and oppression. So for me, Hanukkah had always been pretty far down the list of the holidays I valued. What use did I have, did my family really have, for this blatantly alternative Christmas, this excuse to find another way to promote consumerism? This minor celebration of a dubious miracle and common-as-dust metaphor, or most troubling, the promotion of tribal battle?
Until we came South. Until I left more religiously neutral, even indifferent, places, like the West Coast towns I had lived in for most of my life, and came up against a culture where religion, and one particular religious tradition, seems so often to color everything. Staking some different ground was suddenly more important, more imperative, really. That there are other ways of being, being with each other, being with that which some of us call God.
It wasn’t a sudden change, but gradually, I found myself asserting a bit more Jewishness into our family life and religious ritual. And if I didn’t do it, my youngest son did. Like adding color to a black and white world. Like lighting a small arc of candles for illumination.
A recent article on Hanukkah articulated for me what I had been feeling in recent years. In this piece, the familiar story as fleshed out with a critical additional piece of information, an element that gives it particular flavor and significance for these times.
We were reminded that the Jewish people had been overcome by other armies and ruled by foreign kings over the years — marched into exile — stripped of power and land. Over time, they had been exposed to, and even adopted rituals and beliefs from, other religions. As is typical of small groups of people in a majority culture, in lots of ways, they assimilated. But under the rule of this particular Syrian, their entire tradition was at stake. Jewish rituals were outlawed and Greek Gods replaced them in the Temple.
It is said that the rebellion began in a small village where local Jews were subjected to one of the cruelest indignities, forced to sacrifice a pig at the altar to show obedience to the new decree. One man and his five sons refused and rose up, beginning a war of guerrilla tactics and small outbreaks that led to taking back the Temple and rededicating it by the lighting of holy menorah lamps. It was the prospect of total, involuntary assimilation that gave fuel to a remnant people faced with cultural and religious extinction. In this case, a threat worse than death.
One Jewish woman interviewed for the article pointed out that while the vanquished Syrian army is long gone, many Jews face similar challenges today. They are such a small minority, she said, that their holidays, their religion, can be totally swallowed up by the Christian culture.
So the Hanukkah story is not so light, and certainly not just a pragmatic alternative to Christmas. It is a time of joy because what it celebrates is the triumph of the human spirit over attempts to control it politically. Hanukkah remains a reminder, a celebration, that more than two thousand years ago, for a brief and shining time, the Jews battled for, and won back their, religious freedom and a way of life. It offers both a particular and a universal message: The ancient Jewish story of being overcome, swallowed up by a majority culture, religious and otherwise, is one of many in this part of the country, this country, and all over the world.
Unitarian Universalism is an even smaller faith tradition than Judaism, with perhaps fewer than 250,000 members worldwide. As we have evolved and expanded, we have come to honor, and in many ways embrace, elements of religion and culture, past and present, wherever we discover them. Yet, unlike those from the Jewish and other non-Christian religions, we stand always with one foot in and one foot out of our Protestant roots. We find ourselves either completely distancing ourselves from Christian theology and ritual or we find ourselves anxiously assimilating into a culture that is comfortable, familiar, and in many ways overpowering, especially this time of year.
The parallel between the Jewish dilemma around the majority Christian holidays and our fragile UU standing struck me one year when a congregation I was serving as minister participated in an evening of community choir performances. It was never billed as being interfaith. It was clearly an ecumenical (read Christian) concert of religious music. In years past, the musical selections were all based on psalms, but this year the theme was broader.
Our choir chose pieces from the Hebrew Bible or the Old Testament, in fact one of them from the most holy Jewish prayer, the Shema, about the one-ness of God. The rest of the pieces, as lovely as many of them were, were based on a very Orthodox view of Jesus (the Christ) and the pre-eminence of Christianity. Christ as King of All, Lord of Lords, savior of mankind, who saved us from Satan, who took away our sins. The Christianity represented in that holiday concert was as far away from Unitarian Universalist religious tradition, and yes, belief, as it could be.
I can’t speak for that other small group of religious liberals, but I felt the price that night of assimilation, voluntary or otherwise, was an overwhelming feeling of being invisible. Losing my religion, our religion, in the process.
How do we sing with, live with and in, this culture that seems so familiar, that offers some comfort, some certainty, and yet hold on to what is so tenuously ours?
How can we hold onto our saving culture, our saving message, that there are many ways to God, and that we hold God, hold good, as illumination within ourselves? That we offer a generous hope, not hell.
How do we keep our own beacon lit, not swallowed up in darkness?
How do we keep our own light kindled?