Is It Hanukkah Yet?
I spent a good portion of this past weekend revising the Hanukkah playlist I made on Spotify two years ago. I felt like it ought to get an update this year to bring more variety to it and because some of my tastes have changed. I also got to discover that Woody Guthrie apparently wrote a lot of not-very-well-known Hanukkah songs. They’re, uh, interesting. There’s probably a reason that they’re not really considered part of the holiday canon the way that something like Adam Sandler’s “Chanukah Song” is (for the record, neither Woody Guthrie nor Adam Sandler will be making an appearance on my playlist). But anyway, I was working on my Hanukkah playlist because Hanukkah is coming up.
Well, sort of. We’re less than a month out, but Hanukkah doesn’t really “come up” in the way that Christmas does (and anyway, it’s not even Kislev yet). Despite what attempts to be inclusive by city halls, department stores, and children’s cartoons might have you believe, Hanukkah’s just not that important of a holiday. The whole stretch of holidays from the start of Elul to Simchat Torah is a holiday season, but Hanukkah just stands on its own. Would you believe that it’s not even in the Tanakh? It’s a minor festival, mostly noted by gentile society because it tends to fall near Christmas and shares a few superficial features, like a preoccupation with lights. Getting ready for it so far in advance is a decidedly odd thing to do.
I think it’s a complicated mix of being both because of and in spite of the way that Christians have latched onto Hanukkah as “Jewish Christmas” (even though nobody really asked for that) that I find myself “gearing up” for a minor celebration weeks from its start. I’ve been working on a playlist. I’ve made sure I know where my ugly Hanukkah sweater is. I’ve already bought candles (which is a nice contrast from most years when I’m hurriedly rushing out to the store on the day of). I’ve already got a blog post queued up with a recipe for latke-crusted chicken. A lot of preparation for such a minor holiday. Surely, this is prompted by the way that the goyim have already decked the town in garlands and bows, much like how the gift giving aspect of the holiday originated in a desire by Jewish parents to keep their children from feeling left out. Heck, the ugly Hanukkah sweater only exists so that the ugly Christmas sweater can be marketed to Jews.
Yet, I don’t know that I’m troubled by treating Hanukkah in this way. Hanukkah celebrates the Hasmonean revolt against the Assyrian Greeks, who tried to force the population of ancient Israel into assimilation. We resisted, rededicated our temple, and, of course, as every child knows, one day’s worth of oil lasted for eight, keeping the Menorah lit as a symbol of hope in the darkness. Is it not in the same spirit of defiance against assimilation, then, to turn festive traditions on their head for the purpose of being as visibly Jewish as possible at the most Christian time of year?
If I were to keep my head down and simply refuse to acknowledge the celebration around me, I might be mistaken for an ordinary humbug, a person of no cheer. Yet, by doing all these things, by being visibly Jewish in a way that’s so immediately intelligible to the gentile population, I can make the same statement I make by putting the lit Menorah directly into my window every year, just as tens of thousands of Jewish families do. I can say hineini, “here I am”. I will not hide, I will not be overlooked, I will not be absorbed. And perhaps not everyone will agree that that’s the statement I make by embracing the desire to celebrate, but it’s the statement I choose to make anyway. To be a light in the darkness that refuses to go out.
And if you happen to be in need of a new Hanukkah playlist, you can find mine here.