The mainstreaming of Hanukkah Cultural assimilation: Symbols of Jewish holiday more evident in secular society.

December 05, 1996

HANUKKAH STAMPS? Mickey Mouse dreidels? A children's show about the Jewish holiday featuring Shari Lewis' puppets? Tiny Hanukkah dresses for the popular American Girl Dolls? For people of the Jewish faith, the signs abound: This is not your grandfather's Hanukkah.

The increasing commercialization and assimilation of the Jewish Festival of Lights," which begins tonight and continues for eight days, has raised for Jews some of the concerns their Christian brethren have for Christmas. Jews fear that mass-merchandising masking the 2,000-year-old legend at the heart of the holiday: When Jews of Judea went to reclaim their desecrated temple after defeating an invading army, they found only enough oil to light the sacred lamp for one day. That it burned for eight was thought a miracle.

The against-all-odds story is seen by Jews as a metaphor for Judaism, but also parallels the holiday itself. Despite protestations by some that Hanukkah has been inflated to counterbalance Christmas, and is not as important as more holy dates in the religious calendar, it steams ahead -- sort of the little Jewish holiday that could.

Its mainstreaming in America dates to the height of European immigration, when Aunt Jemina batter was advertised as "great for latkes," the traditional potato pancakes, according to a book by Jewish historian Jenna Weiss- man Joselit. Public recognition has swelled to the point where children's books on Hanukkah are now easily found and menorahs, the nine-stemmed candelabra used in the festivities, are collected as works of art. Far from perverting the holiday's meaning, the 20th century accouterments, it can be argued, help fulfill the original intent of displaying a bright symbol of faith.

When executives of Texaco Inc. disparaged Hanukkah and Kwanzaa in the now-infamous tape that helped settle a discrimination lawsuit, they in no way intended a compliment. But in a back-handed form, their remarks were recognition of the fact that cultural celebrations of minority groups are finding their way into the mainstream of American life.

Pub Date: 12/05/96

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