By Gil Troy, 2009
For the last few years I have lamented that Jews were preparing to celebrate Hanukkah, our festival of lights, during a particularly dark period. I am happy to say that this year was actually pretty good. Yes, the Iranian nuclear threat – to the United States not just to Israel – still looms. Yes, the crash, recession, and Madoff scheme crushed many individuals – and charitable foundations that do holy work. Yes, the high unemployment rate in the United States is a reminder of the misery many individuals are experiencing even during this holiday season. Yes, Islamic extremists declare war on the West, yet many Westerners, deny and dither, afraid to respond too assertively. And yes, Palestinian rejectionists get a free pass in the world court of public opinion while Israel is condemned for engaging in self-defense.
Still, today, the markets have recovered and what was supposed to be the “worst economic crisis since the Great Depression” may turn out to be simply part of the historical, boom and bust cycle of capitalism. More important, Israel ’s counter-offensive in Gaza worked. The good people of Sderot and the Western Negev seem set to celebrate their quietest Hanukkah in years. Even Mahmoud Abbas admitted this year that the West Bank is thriving, deviating from the Western narrative claiming the Palestinians are suffering under the world’s worst conditions. And while the shadow of terror still darkens the planet, with the families mourning the slaughtered soldiers of Fort Hood joining a long worldwide list of families stricken by this blight, the West and Israel endured far fewer attacks than the dark days of 2001, 2002, and 2003.
So we should celebrate this year, mindful of the troubles and appreciative of all our blessings. Rejoicing in past victories helps put our current challenges in perspective, reminding us that we have suffered before, and not just survived but thrived. Moreover, with terrorists still trying to rob innocents of any joy, and any semblance of a normal life, observing holidays becomes yet another act of defiance, a leap of faith asserting our commitment to stick to the everyday.
Nevertheless, even as we celebrate, it behooves us to reassess the meaning of the holidays, thinking about how we observe them. Now is the time to rededicate ourselves to Jewish renewal, finding the joy in Judaism, not just the “oy.” Such a reevaluation is particularly necessary in the case of Hanukkah, a holiday whose meaning has changed over the years.
While Hanukkah’s basic plot line has remained unchanged for almost two millennia, the Hanukkah we know and love is a twentieth-century invention. The central themes we associate with Hanukkah, of heroism and power, both physical and spiritual, were Zionist ideas; for centuries the Rabbis dwelled on the miracle of the oil. When the Zionist revolution a century ago reevaluated Judaism, the Maccabees’ story proved that Jewish history was not just about the anti-Semites who hated us and the Rabbis who taught us. The Maccabees were home-grown heroes, rooted in Israel ’s ancient soil, and willing to fight, if necessary, for their homeland, their beliefs, and their freedom. In that spirit, before World War I, many Jews used Hanukkah as an opportunity for giving not receiving, donating the modern equivalent of the “shekel,” the Biblical coin, to the Zionist cause.
At the same time, the other great twentieth-century Jewish revolution, the rise of North American Jewry, also transformed Hanukkah. As with Passover, the theme of “freedom” resonated in the land of liberty, giving the ancient Jewish holiday a contemporary American flavor. But, even more important, the quirk of scheduling, as well as the anthropological linkage to another winter-solstice festival of lights, made for the gift-giving frenzy we see today.
As a delightful holiday of dedication, Hanukkah has long been child-centered. Traditionally, Jewish communities used Hanukkah to rededicate themselves to their children’s Jewish education. In that spirit, parents gave children “gelt” or coins to sweeten the experience of Torah study.
In the modern world, this festival of gelt-giving and of lights became the popular Jewish response to Christmas envy, the malady that seized many a Jewish household each December. In fact, with eight nights, and thus eight opportunities for gift-giving, Hanukkah became a way for Jews to trump their Christian neighbors.
Tragically, both Hanukkah and Christmas have become “Festivals of Consumption,” in the late historian Daniel Boorstin’s apt phrase. A minor sweetener to facilitate Torah study has become the major focus of the holiday, even as this traditionally minor holiday has become a major highlight on the North American Jewish calendar.
Once again, then, we have a chance this year to rededicate Hanukkah, and ourselves, to reorient the holiday. It is time to rejuvenate the holiday by making it a highpoint on our tzedakah calendar, our schedule of giving, while teaching our children about generosity not just materialism. It is not realistic, nor necessary, to declare a gift-giving ban. Most of us, thankfully, do not have to choose between self-indulgence and good works. Moreover, to set up false choices by being too austere, defeats the educational purpose behind the gelt-giving. But is it too much to ask for this year, that every family, every school, every Jewish institution, every Hanukkah get-together carve out some time to think about others who are less fortunate, others with whom we should share our good fortune? Is it too much to ask that as we teach our children the joy of receiving gifts from loved ones we also teach them the joy of giving gifts to strangers?
The smallest of gestures can teach this most important of lessons. During the traditional Hanukkah grab bag, one additional toy can be thrown into the hopper, and that toy can be designated for a child in need. Similarly, children awash in presents could be asked to give one old toy and one new toy to tzedakah. Relatives from far away who are going to send Hanukkah checks can be encouraged to allocate part of their gift to a charity of the children’s choice, or parents and children can agree on a certain percentage of all gifts to be donated. Even more important, acts of loving kindness, good deeds, should be encouraged so we go beyond many Jews’ tendency to assume that the only way to help others is materially.
This Hanukkah, of all Hanukkahs, why not take advantage of the eight nights, the eight candles, to designate our thoughts, our prayers, and our gifts of time, talent, and money in the following directions:
On the First Night of Hanukkah, let us dedicate ourselves to the Victims of Palestinian Terror, the casualties of the recent Second Lebanon War and Gaza operation, and most especially the still-traumatized citizens of Sderot and the Western Negev, hoping to bring a little light into their lives: Just because a story fades from the headlines does not mean trouble has disappeared. Families of the murdered still miss their loved ones, year after year. Terrorists have slaughtered more than 1000 people in Israel since 2000, and maimed thousands more. Hezbollah killed nearly 150 others, soldiers and civilians, Jews and Arabs, during the summer of 2006. Thousands of Kassam rockets have rained down on the good people of Sderot and the Western Negev . We must adopt families of the victims, embracing them, supporting them, befriending them, sending both love and money. We should still focus on helping out the people of Sderot, who endured so much for so long. The Hesder Yeshiva there has proven to be an essential force for community building there, doing good and holy work. Another way to make a strong stand of solidarity with the citizens of Sderot is through http://sderotmedia.com/?cat=5
Also, support Camp Koby, a magical summer camp that works with survivors of terror, healing sons and daughters, brothers and sisters of victims.
On the Second Night of Hanukkah, let us dedicate ourselves to Gilad Shalit, honoring his heroism and that of his family. On June 25, 2006, Gilad Shalit, a 19-year-old with a shy smile, was kidnapped by Hamas near Gaza . His pain – and his families’ suffering – is our pain. Our worlds will not be complete, our holidays not fully joyous, until he comes home – and we have not done enough for him. His family shares a unique bond of anguish with the families of Ron Arad, Zachary Baumel, Zvi Feldman, and Yehuda Katz, who have been missing since the 1980s. Buy Gilad’s book “When The Fish and the Shark first Met.” Write your representatives demanding information and action. For more information, including a petition to sign, visit http://www.habanim.org/en/index_en.html or add your wishes to http://giladshalit.blogspot.com/
On the Third Night of Hanukkah, let us dedicate ourselves to the Children of Israel , who deserve to live in freedom, free of fear: Israeli society has proved itself remarkably resilient, but even before the global financial crisis began there was far too much poverty in Israel . The gap between the rich and the poor is growing greater than ever. We must be proactive not just reactive, thinking about how to help improve the quality of Israeli life. One lovely initiative is the Jade Bar Shalom Books for Israel Project, an attempt to get new and slightly used English books sent to Israeli schoolchildren to help compensate for budget cutbacks. Since July 2005, over 41 tons of donated English literature and reference books have been delivered to over 200 of Israel ‘s Jewish, Druze, Bedouin, Christian, Bahai, and Muslim public schools.
On the Fourth Night of Hanukkah, let us dedicate ourselves to the Institutions of Israel, the well-oiled infrastructure which keeps the society functioning: Even as we champion new initiatives, we need to continue supporting agencies that have laid the foundation for the Jewish state, and help make it thrive. To name only a few, Hadassah continues to modernize Israeli medical facilities, the Magen David Adom (Israeli “Red Cross”) serves all people in Israel under trying circumstances, the Jewish National Fund continues renewing the land, the United Jewish Communities launched a special Israel Emergency Fund to rebuild in the north and in Sderot. To honor their heroic services to the citizens and soldiers up north during the 2006 war, make sure to support Rambam Hospital in Haifa as well, as part of the rebuilding effort, which continues.
On the Fifth Night of Hanukkah, let us dedicate ourselves to taking back the night, to undoing some of the evil that was done this year. We can through our good deeds exorcise some of the bad deeds that have been done. In that spirit, donate to UN Watch which has been a powerful force calling attention to the hypocrisy of the human rights community when it demonizes Israel . Alternatively, to remember the good people the Islamic terrorists in Mumbai killed just over a year ago, support your local Chabad house showing that we, too, will target them, but with love.
On the Sixth Night of Hanukkah, let us dedicate ourselves to our Local Jewish Community, renewing our collective ability to help us renew ourselves and our own Jewish identities: Even while fighting fires abroad, we need to keep our home fires burning, as it were, by supporting our local synagogues, schools, Federations, agencies. In the Diaspora and in Israel , if we do not create welcoming, exciting models for Jewish identity, we will raise a new generation of Hellenists not Maccabees. This Hanukkah is a perfect time to rededicate ourselves to Jewish education, on all levels, for young and old alike. We all need to be engaged in lifelong learning, the more formal, the better, the more time-intensive the better. More broadly, let us challenge ourselves by asking not only how much money am I willing to donate, but how much time am I willing to volunteer this coming year?
On the Seventh Night of Hanukkah, let us dedicate ourselves to neighbors in need, bestowing gifts on neighbors who are suffering and to non-Jewish friends and causes, understanding the power of affirming our common humanity, and helping one another:: Most of us live in cities marked by huge disparities between haves and have-nots. Those of us who have should take the time to help those who have less, both Jews and non-Jews, seeing what we can do to make sure that none of our neighbors go to bed hungry, cold, or lonely, that none of our neighbors are deprived of the joy of celebrating this season. Wherever we stand on the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan , we should all stand united in support of the American troops, those idealistic, vulnerable, heroic knights in Kevlar willing to risk so much. Creative ways of supporting the troops include buying pre-paid calling cards so soldiers can call their loved ones for free or sending messages of support. Given the seasonal coincidence between Hanukkah and Christmas, we have a lovely chance to make Christmas and Hanukkah wishes harmonize, as we celebrate Hanukkah by helping neighbors celebrate Christmas. The crisis in the Darfur region of Sudan demands our action and our outrage. Let us not stand by idly, complaining of others’ inactions, yet not doing anything ourselves. The American Jewish World Service has been a particular leader in this, combining education, advocacy and intelligent giving.
On the Eight Night of Hanukkah, let us dedicate ourselves to the Power of Teaching, of Leading Our Children by Example: If every night, we channel our children’s charitable impulses, giving a guided tour of the possibilities of giving, on this, the last night of Hanukkah, let us ask our children to take the first baby steps in this world of responsibility and great satisfaction, by asking them to pick a charitable deed, a mitzvah for someone else they plan on doing.
The time and resources are limited; the work is great – and overwhelming. Yet our sages teach that it is not upon us to complete all the work, nor are we free to evade it. No one should feel guilty for failing to carve out a charitable moment every one of the eight nights – yet no one should feel free to ignore this challenge completely.
For decades now, kids have greeted each other every morning of Hanukkah with the question: “What did you get last night?” This year, perhaps, we can also teach our children to ask: “What did you give?”
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and the author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today, as well as The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.