So–it’s almost Hanukkah, just about everyone’s favorite holiday. Gifts, gelt (Yidd., money), no fasting, no standing in shul for hours, no cooking for big family meals, nice lighting-the-menorah ritual.
Well, I never liked it. Despite the gifts, I didn’t like it even as a kid.
As a first generation American on my father’s side (especially grateful to this country since everyone who was not here were killed by the Nazis,) and a third generation American on my mother’s, I am a very patriotic American with a strong American identity.
But every Hanukkah, I felt like the “other.”
Green and red were not my colors. The trees, tinsel, and ornaments on the sidewalk, in the lobby of my apartment building, in the windows, all over in fact, held no allure or meaning for me. The endless Christmas songs were not my songs and interrupted the pop and rock music I listened to on the radio. The Santas on the sidewalks ringing their bells were not my heroes. Neither, needless to say, was Jesus (about whom you heard surprisingly little) whose birth was being celebrated. And growing up in Manhattan, Christmas was inescapable.
My Grandma took us to see the holiday windows on Fifth Avenue. Sometimes we’d go to Macy’s for a Hanukkah gift.
The music! The lights! The damn holiday spirit! I just couldn’t stand any of it.
And it seemed anti-American not to join in.
In yeshiva high school, we had a regular school day on Christmas. You know how long you had to wait for a bus? You know how creepy it was to walk down empty streets alone at 8 a.m., warned to be careful of drunks?
So–I do not like Christmas time, although I do wish all those celebrating a very happy holiday. And because Hanukkah was around the same time, the holiday step-child, I didn’t like Hanukkah, either. And I liked it even less once I understood that the rampant consumerism of the Christmas season infected the original Hanukkah holiday.
When my kids were little, we didn’t make much of a deal about Hanukkah. We lit the candles every night and each child got a small gift.
At family Hanukkah parties, they usually got Hanukkah gelt from the aunts, uncles, and grandparents. When we got home, immediately after the collection of money was tallied, the children had to give me 10% of their haul to give to the tzedakah (charity) of their choice. I would convert the cash to a check and mail it in with the name of the “generous” donor. I did the same on their birthdays. These were teachable moments in the best sense of the term.
Which brings me to another point. Giving tzedakah.
Although Judaism mandates a government which is equitable and just, it still leaves a lot up to the individual. Those who have are to help support those who don’t. Networks of charities spring up in any Jewish community to take care of people from cradle to grave: kimpatorin aid (for the new mother), gemilas chesed (for the out-of-work, or one overwhelmed by bills or bad luck), free loans, a chevra kadisha (guaranteeing everyone, even if impoverished, a dignified Jewish burial). Benefactors make sure that there are shuls, schools, mikvahs (ritual baths). Rabbis have discretionary funds, financed by the members of the synagogue, to pay a tuition bill, perhaps, or to make sure that no one is without a lulav and etrog on Sukkot.
We should be proud of the many non-profit Jewish agencies which exist to support Jewish and humanitarian causes. HIAS, UJA, ADL, AJWS, JBFCS, JASA and many, many more organizations with lots of different initials are devoted to tikkun olam, making the world a better place for all of those who live in it, Jews and non-Jews alike.
As individuals, we, too, have the responsibility of tikkun olam, a role and a responsibility to financially support causes we believe it.
So maybe I’d like Hanukkah better if the message were not getting gelt but giving gelt. And maybe that would make it, for me, more authentically “Jewish.”
In that spirit, I hope that each of us will take out our credit cards and donate generously to whatever we believe needs our financial support and to whatever we directly, or indirectly, benefit from. There are many worthy causes.
Do it for yourself, to teach your kids, and for tikkun olam.
And have a Happy Hanukkah.
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