This piece was printed a few years back in Kol Kehilla. Rabbi Dev suggested that I post it to our website.
Chanukah and Multiculturalism
by David J. Cooper
The standard defensive Jewish response to the December dilemma is to draw the wagons in a circle and resist Christmas at all costs. I am looking for another more open way of looking at it all, but at the same time a way that does not further the eclipse of Jewish culture by Christianity.
The days of isolated insular religious communities are over for most American Jews. Our communities interweave each other. Non-Jewish parents and their extended families come to their children’s and cousin’s Bat Mitzvah. Jewish family members are at their siblings’ and cousins’ Christian weddings and Christmas celebrations. Jewish and Moslem children sing Silent Night, Christian and Sikh children learn Maoz Tzur.
Our congregations are multicultural. Our families are multicultural. Even our own selves are multicultural.
And I want to embrace this. Now this doesn’t mean that at a Chanukah-specific celebration I will sing Come All Ye Faithful. When I am doing Chanukah, I am playing out the Jewish side of my soul, no Santa Claus please. But If I go to midnight mass, I want to sing Silent Night and I do not want to hear I Have a Little Dreydl in church.
At multicultural solstice events, I do want to hear the songs of Chanukah, Christmas, Kwansa, and even earth-pagan hymns. I will wish Christian friends “Merry Christmas” and will welcome their Happy Chanuka’s in return.
The reality is that Christmas is a far bigger celebration among Christians than Chanukah is among Jews. It should be. What Christmas commemorates is a fundamental myth of that faith. Chanukah is only about a historical circumstance—the Maccabbean victory—and its mythos is not central to our experience as Jews. Exodus is our central symbol-myth. The on-going relationship defined by holy covenant and a sense of personal responsibility is central. That is why Passover and High Holydays are so key for us.
During our Passover celebrations we include our non-Jewish family and friends in this central Jewish ritual. There may be multicultural influences in our celebration of Passover, but it is essentially Jewish and all who really partake of it are acting within a Jewish mode as they participate. I do not want non-Jewish participants at my seder to incorporate Easter into our seder. I won’t sing carols around the menorah. But I sure will sing Silent Night around the yule log and I welcome being included in the Christmas celebration. And I will take an evening to drive around with my kids and see the Christmas decorations.
Inter-faith families will design a variety of different experiences for themselves. Some will separate Christmas and Chanukah. Some will blend them. It is my preference not to blend celebrations within the family but to give each tradition its full due. But sometimes this can’t be avoided in the years when Christmas and Chanukah overlap. And blending has its place when an intercultural institution such as a school or a choir is celebrating our multicultural reality at this time of year.
I write this not to lay down any Kehilla policy on the issue. I am writing this to share my personal way of dealing with the December reality in order to provoke some discussion.
Solstice joy to us all. Every one.