This year for the first time in decades, the calendar has coincidentally packed together four holiday traditions into one symbol-laden week. The first night of Hanukkah coincided with Christmas. A day later the African-American spiritual celebration of Kwanza began. The last night of Hanukkah is joined by the celebration of New Year’s Eve. Each of these Holidays, celebrated distinctly, teaches part of the particular human condition, be it the story of the Maccabees and their heroism or the birth of Jesus, every holiday has a story or stories. This year, more than any other that I can remember, these stories are being told in concert and one is compelled to see synergy that overlaps these narratives.
The New Year’s holiday is the most secular. Even though its historic roots are religious, in the modern context it is a night to watch the ball drop, drink and be merry, for as we circle again around the fiery orb, we know our days are numbered and we must cleave to them wholeheartedly. Nearly every American celebrates in some way. The story of New Year’s is a universal tale of mortality and the hope of renewal in the coming year. The story of New Year’s is one that shapes our most humanist identity.
Christmas is a story we all know, given that most Americans are Christian. The story of Jesus’s birth is found everywhere from churches to shopping malls. As one writer put it, “I’ve never felt more Jewish than on Christmas.” Which leads to the wider point - Christmas is about creating a Christian identity. Without Jesus, one cannot be Christian.
Kwanza is a harvest festival instituted in 1966 by Dr. Dr. Maulana Karenga to create a holiday that helps to shape a specific identity for African Americans. It is a week-long festival that celebrates the “Seven Principles of African American Culture” including faith, unity, responsibility and purpose. Most explicitly, the holiday of Kwanza is about African American identity. It’s celebrated by about 5 million people a year in America, making it almost as popular as Hanukkah.
Lastly, is our holiday, Hanukkah. This one is not so clear. Even the rabbis collectively scratched their hoary heads when they begin the discussion of Hanukkah in the Talmud with the words, “Ma Hanukkah?” “ What is Hanukkah?” In the Books of the Maccabees, Hanukkah is the celebration, mirroring Sukkot, where the Jews cast off the yoke of the Greeks and dedicate the newly rebuilt Temple. At its center it’s about political power. But when we get to the Talmud, the sages were dealing with a community that had no power. We were newly in exile, we watched our great Temple burn. How can we celebrate Hanukkah in the face of such destruction? Along came the famous story about the jug of oil lasting for eight days. The rabbis insert the story to deemphasize the political nature of the Holiday and elevate the spiritual aspect.
What is most interesting, however, is that both stories – the story of the war and the story of the oil – seek to preserve something precious in us, our identity as Jews. Whether it’s political identity or spiritual identity, the holiday of Hanukkah is about being Jewish in a non-Jewish world. It’s a story about Jewish identity.
Think about this for a moment. Whether it is secular humanist, cultural, or faith-based each of these four holidays describe identity. To have all four together in one week, creates the unprecedented opportunity to both own our special identity as Jews and reach out through that identity (not by subverting it) into the wider, secular and faith cultures that surround us. It is not a time to cringe and hide away our Judaism. We should be proud and carry a loud voice.
We are told to Pirsum HaNes to make the lights of the Hanukkiah public. The lighting of the candles is the only mitzvah of this type. We cover the challah, we veil the bride, we close up the Torah in the Holy Ark. Only the candles burn in the window.
So on the last night of Hanukkah, when many will be celebrating both their Jewish and humanist identities, don’t forget to light the candles and say you’re proud to be Jewish before you pop the cork and count down from ten.
Chag Urim Sameach.