Hanukkah's role varies among families, eras


CHICAGO -- This morning, millions of Christians will attend Christmas services to celebrate the birth of Jesus. A few hours later, Jewish families will gather to recite Hebrew prayers and light a candle on the Hanukkah menorah, a celebration of another miracle.

For the first time since 1959, in a coincidental convergence of calendars, the first night of the Jewish festival of lights will fall this year on Christmas Day.

While the simultaneous holidays present obvious dilemmas for interfaith couples, Jewish leaders said the proximity of Christmas and Hanukkah has always posed challenges for the Jewish community in America, affecting the way the holiday is viewed and celebrated.

For Jews and Christians who marry, the problem known as the "December dilemma" means facing whether to meld two traditions or pick one primary religion to follow. But even among Jewish families, it can prompt debate on the best way to celebrate Hanukkah while being bombarded with all things Christmas.

Some Jews have adapted Yuletide traditions, such as decking their homes in blue and white lights and giving gifts for eight days. Others emphatically reject any Christmaslike ritual as offensive, preferring to focus on the powerful message of Hanukkah, which commemorates the ancient Maccabees' fight for religious freedom.

Lori O'Hara of Northbrook, Ill., a Chicago suburb, was raised Jewish and has been happily married to Steve, a Catholic, for 23 years. The couple decided to raise their daughters in the Jewish faith, and they decided not to appropriate Christmas traditions or decorations, so their children would be proud of their religion.

Still, with carols echoing in every coffee shop and Christmas trees in every store, Jews say it can be difficult not to feel left out.

"I think every Jewish family struggles with this, whether they are interfaith or not," O'Hara said. "Everyone deals with that commercial aspect. In our family, we came to our own decisions, and those decision weren't made lightly."

Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, associate rabbi of Anshe Emet Synagogue, a Conservative congregation in Chicago's Lakeview neighborhood, believes the "December dilemma" lies at the heart of what it means to be Jewish in America.

"We might feel it more acutely given the calendrical curiosity of this year. But I think that the ongoing questions persist each and every year," Cosgrove said.

"For the Jewish community, the positive message of Hanukkah ... is how to maintain a dynamic and vibrant Jewish faith in a non-Jewish world," he said. "Those same questions which Judah Maccabee faced in Greek culture, Jews face in present day. Maybe not in the same severity, but the basic question remains of how to remain Jewish, actively and proudly so, in a non-Jewish world."

The Hebrew word Hanukkah means "dedication" and celebrates the victory of a small band of Jews, led by the Maccabees, against persecution and religious oppression. When the Maccabees came to rededicate the defiled Jerusalem Temple, they found only one cruse of oil, enough to burn for one day. Yet the oil in the flask burned for eight days.

Today Jews light a menorah for eight days to commemorate the military triumph of few against many, the miracle of the oil and survival of religious freedom.

It is rare for Christmas and Hanukkah to land on the same day because of the use of different calendars. The Jewish calendar is lunar, while the Gregorian calendar is solar.

But strict adherence to a lunar calendar would mean that the Jewish holidays would eventually land in the wrong season. So rabbis developed a system whereby a leap month is inserted at the end of the year, seven times in every 19-year cycle. The Jewish holidays thus fluctuate by about a month or so in relation to the Gregorian calendar.

Rabbi Asher Lopatin of Anshe Sholom B'nai Israel Congregation, an Orthodox synagogue also in Lakeview, said he was thrilled that the holidays landed on the same day this year.

"I think it's great. When we usually hear about Christmas, Hanukkah has already happened," he said. "But this year we really need to struggle and reflect on how to be Jewish in a Christian society. I think it's a good thing for Jews to think about."

Historically, observance of Hanukkah by American Jews has been shaped by immigrant customs as well as the holiday's proximity to Christmas.

Jewish scholars said Hanukkah - traditionally a less important religious holiday - started to become more prominent in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as Jewish immigration surged, mostly as a response to the hoopla over Christmas and as a way to assimilate.

Massachusetts Rabbi Joshua Eli Plaut, a historian who is writing a book on being Jewish at Christmastime in America, found this description of a Hanukkah celebration at Sinai Congregation of Chicago in the Dec. 27, 1878, issue of Chicago's Jewish Advance:

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