Hanukkah: Two Truths and a Lie

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Over the last few days, I have continuously heard phrases such as ‘you’re so lucky you get 8 days of gifts’. This is a common phrase we Jews will hear, derived from the comparison of Hanukkah to Christmas. Yet, at the heart of this phrase lies two lies and a truth. Namely, that Hanukkah is a significant Jewish holiday; that Hanukkah is synonymous with Christmas, and that it demonstrates the malleability of religion for political purposes. 

These assertions are perhaps best demonstrated by an episode of Friends. During the 7th season of Friends, Ross dresses like a ‘holiday armadillo’ to teach his son about his Jewish heritage. In this action and the 20-minute episode that follows, the show unintentionally illustrates two essential elements of the creation of Hanukkah in popular culture. Firstly, that Hanukkah is an important, if not the most important, holiday in the Jewish religion. During the 10 seasons of the show, Ross and Monica’s Jewish heritage is hardly discussed. Apart from this 20-minute episode, it is the only display of their Jewishness. And secondly, the manner in which Ross attempts to explain to his son the relevance of Hanukkah is through adopting Hanukkah to fit within the Christmas narrative. For instance, in his dress-up of a character tasked with delivering gifts to children.

In the spirit of Hanukkah, let’s untangle these assumptions and their relevance to the Jewish identity. Firstly, Hanukkah is a rather minor holiday within the Jewish tradition. It is never mentioned in the Torah and is only briefly discussed in the Talmud. Its development belongs more in recent history than one might think. Contrary to major Jewish holidays, little limitations, in terms of restrictions, are placed on practicing Jews during the 8-day festivities. This structure leads perfectly into how Hanukkah has transformed, and into the second point from the Friends episode. 

The story of modern-day Hanukkah has less to do with the Maccabees and more to do with patterns of Jewish migration, and assimilation into Christian majority states. As Jews started to migrate to the United States in the mid-19th century, they were faced with the question of how to maintain and pass on the Jew practices. These challenges become more prominent once children began to attend public state schools. As such Hanukkah was the ideal holiday tradition to be molded to meet these challenges. Although Hanukkah dates are set in accordance with a lunar calendar and shifts on the Gregorian solar calendar, it nonetheless occurs around Christmas. Furthermore, as the celebration has less ‘strict’ religious rules, and is a family-based holiday, Hanukkah was the perfect holiday to meet the challenges of maintaining a Jewish identity. Over the years that followed, Hanukkah was transformed into the Jewish version of Christmas, as it is perceived today. A simple example of this is the Mensch on a Bench, the Jewish counterpart to Elf on the Shelf.  

There are more components to this transformation, but the ‘holiday armadillo’ and the Mensch on a Bench illustrate this transfiguration in a relatively straightforward way. We are now left with the question of why all this is important. Undeniably, religion and culture fluctuate, and, at face value, Hanukkah’s transposition isn’t a problem. After all, it is how many Jewish children, including myself, have been introduced to our Jewish heritage. However, in the case of Hanukkah, and, arguably, all motivated cultural manipulations, some issues must be acknowledged. Despite what the Zionist mission has been trying to do since its conception, Judaism and the Jewish Identity are not homogeneous. Judaism is vastly diverse, and the attempt of its ‘unification’ results in a certain narrative being embraced and enforced over others. In almost all cases being the Ashkenazi articulation. 

For Hanukkah, this means that many of the practices are linked to the globally-perceived ‘most important Jewish holiday’ are derived from Ashkenazi practices. The dreidel is believed to have originated from gambling games in Central Europe, counter to Hanukkah’s narrative as a game played to protect from religious persecution. Similarly, latkes and sufganiyot seem to have Eastern European roots. Furthermore, the ‘embracing’ of such practices has meant that other, non-Ashkenazi, has been erased from the popular narrative. For example, certain Jewish North African communities celebrate Eid al-Banat, or Chag HaBanot, a celebration of Jewish women, that would typically fall on the 7th night of Hanukkah. 

The story of Hanukkah that I have attempted to tell here is one woven into the grander story of Judaism. And while there may be nothing inherently wrong with the transformation, and variation of Judaism, it should not be amiss that some voices, traditions and practices were and are prioritized over others. Otherwise, we allow for the erosion of culture to the benefit of one particular articulation of it. 

Leehoo Pansky is a SOAS Digital Ambassador and second year LLB Law student. His interests include Environmental Law, Human Rights and clowning. He also claims to be the only person on the planet with the first name Leehoo.

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