Friday, December 30, 2005

Chanike and YOU!

I am about to be bitter and irritable.

Over at DovBer's, Doobeedoo kindly offered us this bit-o-learning:

Since Adam Harishon saw [after he sinned] that the day was becoming shorter, he said, "Woe is to me! Perhaps because I sinned the world is becoming dark on me and returning to emptiness, and this is the death that was decreed upon me from Heaven." He immediately sat and fasted eight days. When he saw the winter season [or, winter solstice], and saw that the day was lengthening, he said, "It is the nature of the world." He went and celebrated eight days. The following year he made both these [the eight days of fast] and these [the eight days of celebration] as holidays. He established them for the sake of Heaven, whereas they [the heathens] established them for idolatry. (Avoda Zara 8a)

This reminded me, immediately, of the class at Leo Baeck College where Rabbi Chaim Maccaby (yes, that's his real name), delivered a lecture on the history and customs of Chanike, and then cheerfully told us "And it works! The sun always comes back."

I do have to admit to a couple questions here, the main one being who the heathens Adam haRishon is being compared to are. Are these contemporaries of his? How many people are running around at this point, and have the others already gone off the (very short) derech? But I'm going to think about that later, now I am going to talk about Chanike...and...YOU! Or at least me.

The Judeoblogosphere is hopping right now, with the signficance or lack thereof of this holiday. One thing that's been made very clear is that the dreidl does not actually date back to the days of Maccabees. I am devastated. (Actually, I'm kidding, and there seem to be some people out there who really are upset by the news, so I'll shut up.)

I love Chanike. For sheer fun it is hard to beat. Not too much in the way of ritual requirements. Good food. Gelt. Candles. Not as hectic as Purim. Not as depressing as Tisha b'Av. (Rather the converse, in fact.)

But Chanike is also the Jewish holiday that provides me with the most occasions for aggravation about the perception and role of all things Jewish in American life. I have never wanted to sock anyone over Purim, or Sukkot, or Yom Kippur. Chanike--oy, Chanike.

I was raised on the mantra that this is a very minor holiday, that had odd fortune of ending up playing opposite Christmas, and has thereby had its meaning misunderstood, and its importance inflated by analogy. This has some truth to it, as does the observation that this couldn't have happened to a more staunchly anti-assimilation-themed holiday. Oh, the irony.

What I notice as an adult, is that Chanike produces a bizarre reaction in many non-Jewish and some Jewish Americans. Reactions of embarassment, defensiveness, cutesyness, and a mad drive to syncretize.

Does anyone remember the Friends episode with the Holiday Armadillo? In some sort of attempt to prevent his son from being influenced by Santa, Ross ends up dressed as an armadillo. Chandler is Santa. Joey is Superman. I do not remember the exact details. What I do remember is a series of gags which basically revolved around the hilarity of Jews having this other holiday...sides splitting...and the line to the effect of, "If Santa and the Holiday Armadillo are in the room together for more than a few minutes, the world will end," which would have been funnier if there wasn't every indication the producers thought it might be true. At the end, there's a final gag about how Ross and Monica don't remember the candlelighting broche, and then--and this was what amazed me most--as they finally begin to sing a Chanike song together, the camera rushes out of the room, and hovers outside the window, apparently getting a decent distance between itself and a brother and sister, and a small child, celebrating the holiday of Chanike with no Christmas gags in sight.

Yeah. It's kind of like that.

I see people--fairly sane people--leaping on the whole misbegotten 'Chrismukkah' thing like it was a liferaft. "OH THANK GOD! THIS SOLVES THE PROBLEM OF THEM HAVING THIS OTHER HOLIDAY!" Because the Balabusta has a mixed Jewish-Catholic family, people send her every BLOODY Chrismukkah thing that comes their way. I just got a detailed gag e-mail which details plans to merge Christmas and Chanike into the 15 Days of Chrismukkah.

Ah, people, come on. Can we just leave the holiday alone? It's not hurting anything. It just sits and simmers in too much olive oil.

You want to know what fuels this? Honestly, it's that there are NO other "Winter Holidays". Seriously. When I was in college we did this whole annual event--beautiful--called 'The Festival of the Light and Dark', which was a big intercultural winter festivity thing. What you notice is this: There's Christmas, which is the reason for the season. Then there's Chanike. Then there's Kwanzaa, which is usually considered the third of the Big Three, but was consciously placed where it is to fall into the Christmas season, and so, in my mind, is not a totally separate phenomena, although it has a separate ritual and concept.

Then there's the Solstice--except that, honestly, the people who celebrate the winter Solstice as a pagan holiday are disproportionately from families that are or were Christian within a generation or so, and they often observe Western Christmas customs that were originally pagan customs later syncretized to Christmas, so calling it a separate holiday, culturally, is kind of borderline.

And then there's...Diwali. Which is really a fall holiday that sometimes comes late, like say November, and no one knows a thing about it outside the Hindu community, except that it's got LIGHTS, and is LIKE THE OTHER WINTER HOLIDAYS. And then there's...ummm...welll...every Muslim holiday gets celebrated at this time of year sooner or later. 52 year cycle. And we had a Sikh participant, who just sort of gave up and played gorgeous prayer music because we really wanted her to be there, and there' ELSE.

Chanike is the ringer. And it makes people nuts, because if they could just figure out how to corral it, we could have a totally pleasant holiday season, and no one would have to feel any awkwardness about people being different from one another. Except for Hindus. And Muslims. And people who celebrate Kwanzaa. But the impression I get is, strongly, that if the Jews would just bloody cooperate, we could get somewhere with this monthlong celebration of twinkly lights and good will toward men.


Eliyahu said...

nice work! i have to admit that i am definately impressed with Rabbi Hyam Maccaby's books. (Chaim is Hyam on one book.) and he was right about the sun, too!

Moishe Q. Public said...

Another great post.

Balabusta in Blue Jeans said...

Right, Hyam. Couldn't remember. He's an interesting guy, and, of course, right about the sun coming back!

westbankmama said...

A very big part of our decision to move to Israel was this "problem". We wanted to live in a country where the calendar is Jewish.

I love your blog - adding it to my list.

elf said...

I do have to admit to a couple questions here, the main one being who the heathens Adam haRishon is being compared to are.

He is being compared to the Romans. (This is evident from the mishnah.) The point is that, while the origin of Saturnalia is Adam's praise of God for restoring light to the world, we shouldn't be mislead into thinking that there is anything good or sacred about Saturnalia.

Anyway, nice post. Very amusing.