Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Chanukah: The Not Christmas

When I was growing up, December was for Chanukah. No one I knew celebrated Christmas. And I mean no one.
Obviously, those words are not mine. They belong to my colleague Amy Klein, who was a commentator on NPR this morning. Here's what she had to say in an essay excerpted from "How to Spell Chanukah and Other Holiday Dilemmas":
I grew up in Brooklyn, and almost all my relatives, friends, teachers, and even acquaintances were Orthodox Jews.

Like most families on the block, we placed our menorahs in the front window. We said the blessings, sang Hebrew songs, and played dreidl. We got Chanukah gelt – money, not presents like other kids in my class.

"Presents are for Christmas, not Chanukah," my father insisted.

That's how Chanukah was in America, even in the recesses of religious Brooklyn; still defined by what it was not: not Christmas.

And that's why my move to Israel was so refreshing. In Israel, Rosh Hashanah, Succot, Passover and Chanukah are national holidays. Schools are closed, and often businesses, too.

By early December every kiosk and supermarket presented cardboard boxes of fresh, sumptuous donuts for Chanukah. Sufganiyot, with jelly or crème or caramel or chocolate gushing out like a geyser. Fried, like potato latkes, to celebrate the miracle of the oil that lasted for eight days.

In the center of town a giant electric menorah was lit every night. Throngs of teenagers wandered through the midrachov — the pedestrian cobblestone square — until way past their bedtime. But there was no bedtime because it was Chanukah vacation.

It was so different from America, where, despite all the politically correct inclusiveness, the bland "Seasons Greetings" messages on TV, "holiday" means "Christmas," and Chanukah is relegated to being Not That Holiday.

Then I moved back to the U.S.

Amy keeps it real, though, with an annual Chanukah party. This year she cautioned that she was downsizing -- only 100 invitees. I'll be there Thursday night, bringing a present and scarfing latkes.

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