Christmas spirit for Jews is fine, rabbi says, but a 'Hanukkah bush'? A bit much

December 19, 1992|By Frank P. L. Somerville | Frank P. L. Somerville,Staff Writer

The Orthodox rabbi said he thinks Christmas-like gift-giving is fine,but a "Hanukkah bush" is going too far.

Rabbi Shlomo Porter was in his office recently at the Etz Chaim Center for Jewish Studies, discussing seasonal religious concerns about the increasingly intertwined celebrations of the Christians' Christmas and the Jews' Hanukkah.

The latter, the eight-day Festival of Lights, begins at sundown today. The start of its sixth day coincides with Christmas Eve on Friday.

In contrast to the Christians' commemoration of the birth of Christ in a manger, Hanukkah for Jews has traditionally been a minor event on the religious calendar.

It marks the removal of pagan objects from the Temple of Jerusalem after a Jewish military victory more than 2,000 years ,, ago, and of the single jar of oil that kept the temple's "eternal light" burning for eight days and nights.

"It's a minor holiday that's gained recognition because it occurs around the time of Christmas," Rabbi Porter explained. "Hanukkah is nice, it's children-oriented and it identifies me as Jewish."

But this is also a season of the year when ministers, priests and rabbis worry about the secular and the material overtaking the spiritual. Twenty-four Protestant and Roman Catholic leaders have issued a statement saying they "are deeply concerned about the excessive commercialization of Christmas."

Rabbi Porter, whose Etz Chaim Center is sponsoring the Jewish Expo, a one-day marketplace of Jewish crafts, music, art, food and ideas tomorrow at the Timonium fairgrounds, said it was scheduled to coincide with Hanukkah "because this is a time when Jews as well as non-Jews get caught up in the season of giving."

He said he sees no problem in Jews sharing the happiness and generosity prompted by Christmas, as long as they are faithful to their own religious traditions.

Jews should light candles indoors while Christians light trees outdoors,Rabbi Porter suggested. "A Jewish home should not have lights blinking out front, but the lights of the Hanukkah menorah inside," he said.

What about concerns over "the spiritual yield to the commercial" expressed by the 24 religious leaders assembled by Washington's Center for the Study of Commercialism?

"I have more important wars to fight than the commercialization of the holidays," Rabbi Porter said. "After all, it's not the worst sin in the world to give a present."

But he is concerned about the surveys that show more and more Jewish families, in Baltimore and across the country, are buying Christmas trees. "I draw the line on Hanukkah bushes," he said. "That is not a Jewish symbol."

He said the Etz Chaim Center, on Fords Lane near Park Heights Avenue, advises parents to "tell your children at this time of the year that we're Jewish, we're proud of being Jewish, we're proud of being different and that's not putting down the rest of the world."

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