Today (23rd of December 2014) is the 7th day of Hanukkah; the 8th and last day begins tonight at sunset and ends the sunset after that.
Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melekh ha’olam asher kidishanu b’mitz’votav v’tzivanu l’had’lik neir shel Chanukah. (Amein)
Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melekh ha’olam she’asah nisim la’avoteinu bayamim haheim baziman hazeh. (Amein)
Those are the two blessings that are said every night of Hanukkah, transliterated into latin letters. The first one thanks God for sanctifying us with his commandments, and instructing us to light the Hanukkah candles, and the second one thanks God for performing miracles for our forefathers, as Hanukkah is the celebration of the time when, while trapped in a siege, God made the holy oil last for eight days instead of one, allowing the priests to perform rituals until more could be made.
Hanukkah is one of the most well known jewish holidays, especially outside of Judaism.
It is, however, one of the least important holidays in Judaism. So why is it one that almost every (especially american) jew practices? Utter simple coincidence. It’s at the same time, roughly, as Christmas, taking place almost always in December, though rarely foraying briefly into November or January (it’s synced to lunar cycles, so it isn’t a set date in the gregorian calendar). This year, (2014) it goes from the 16th to the 24th of December.
And when jews were assimilating into american culture, they found that their children were upset when their christian friends were receiving gifts every winter break. So, they took the nearest jewish holiday, Hanukkah, and gave their children gifts then, to assimilate a bit further.
Time for some of my background. I am half jewish. You might think this means I have one jewish parent, and one non-jewish parent, which I do, but it goes further than that.
Judaism as a word can often refer to three different things. 1) it is a religion. 2) it is a culture that is distinct from religion in a lot of ways. 3) it is an ethnicity.
1) I consider myself an atheist. (Though more specifically my beliefs could be called, alternatively, apatheism or Explicit Weak Atheism.)
2) I identify as having grown up in a strongly jewish culture. I celebrate jewish holidays, I had a Bar Mitzvah, and I’m familiar with non-religious jewish customs.
3) I am half jewish ethnically. My father, and his side of the family, is almost 100% ashkenazi jew. (One of his brothers took a genetics test and found out you have to go back to the 6th generation to find someone who was not ashkenazi jew – but that person may have been another type of jew, such as a sephardi or mizrahi jew.) My mother comes from a mostly secular christmas family.
(0+1+.5)/3 = 1.5/3 = .5 jewish.
Nevertheless, I celebrate christmas.
I have a christmas tree in my house, I give presents to my family for christmas, and they give me presents for christmas.
Why? you might ask.
Partially because my maternal grandparents want to give me gifts on christmas because that’s the holiday they grew up with. Partially because it makes my mom happy. And those are good reasons to do it, but if it weren’t for those reasons, I’d still want one.
Because if I’m going to assimilate, I want to be conscious of it. Too few jews that I know, know that Hanukkah was not originally a gift giving holiday. And I’m fine with assimilating! I’m not angry or mad at this fact. But I want to be conscious of it.
With that bit of history out of the way, I want to wish everyone a happy holiday season, or what’s left of it. And I want to invite anyone who reads this blog to celebrate Hanukkah, if they want to. If someone says, You’re culturally appropriating a tradition that isn’t yours, send them here, and ask them to leave a comment taking their dispute up with me, and not you.
To anyone who claims that this would be cultural appropriation, take a moment and ask yourself whether or not a couple of non-jews performing an alien ceremony in order to learn about it, or to derive enjoyment from it, is really something that brings about more pain and suffering in the world, or whether it will inspire more cross cultural understanding and help strengthen the brotherhood of humanity.
I’d bet on the latter, every time.