In December, 1944, in the midst of World War II, The American Jewish Times, a magazine published in Greensboro to serve the Carolinas, put on its cover a drawing of a soldier charging forward with a menorah in one hand and a rifle in the other. Standing behind him is a Maccabee, clutching a spear and a Torah crown, his gaze heavenward.
The symbolism is unmistakable. Memory is the commandment that has sustained the Jewish people. As the heroes of the day defend the Jewish people, they do so mindful of those ancient warriors behind them who were defenders of the faith. The Israelite story of a small, nation bravely resisting the tyranny of a mighty occupying power resonated in an America that itself was born in a revolution against an unjust imperial power. That Hanukkah had its inception as a civil war between assimilated and observant Jews has been overlooked. Whatever the history, Jews have done what they always do, reinventing the holiday to fit their circumstances.
Because of a calendric coincidence, this minor Jewish festival has become the “Jewish Christmas.” Yet delving into Jewish congregational files or listening to oral histories here in North Carolina, one finds precious few memories and memorabilia of Hanukkah compared to the indelible impressions of Purim, Passover, or the High Holidays. Historian Diane Ashton in Hanukkah in America: A History notes how in this country Jews, as a religious minority, transformed the holiday from a neglected, minor holiday into a grand event. Responding to Christmas, Jews have made it a holiday of parties, gift giving, and community celebration. Special holiday foods like latkes and sufganiyot adorn tables. In some homes decorated doors and lighted lawn ornaments add to the holiday cheer. Many towns will have a public candle lighting of a huge Hanukkiah that stands alongside a Christmas tree. Stores will place dreidel and Hanukkah decorations among reindeer and Santa Clauses.
In the 1990s when a Chapel Hill newspaper asked local celebrities how they celebrated Christmas, then Mayor Ken Broun replied that his family didn’t. Rather, they gathered to light the Hanukkah candles and sing Maoz Tzur. And that is how we celebrate Hanukkah today, not as warriors going to battle in defense of the faith but as an occasion to gather family and community. The holiday once again has taken renewed meaning, not as a call to war, but as a festival of light and rededication.
Wishing you and your family a happy holiday!