October 22, 2021

How interfaith families created the modern Hanukkah

‘It has changed a lot’

Todd R. McAdam/managing editor

A menorah, the symbol of Hanukkah, sits with other displays, including a nativity scene, on the village green in Homer, the first time in years — if ever — the Jewish symbol has graced the space. The eight days of Hanukkah begins at sundown on Sunday.

When Michael Weinstein was a kid, Hanukkah was not such big deal, and it definitely wasn’t much of a gift-giving event.

Hanukkah has changed since then, becoming more commercialized as it has been become an engrained part of American culture, said Weinstein, the acting rabbi of the Temple Brith Shalom at 117 Madison St., Cortland. The holiday, which begins Sunday at sundown, lasts for eight days.

In the past, he said, Hanukkah entailed lighting candles on a menorah, saying a blessing and singing some songs, “but that was pretty much the extent of the holiday,” he said.

Over the years, “Hanukkah was elevated,” Weinstein said. Now it’s more involved, and more tied into marketing and shopping.

“Now you can go into stores and buy Hanukkah decorations,” he said. “There didn’t use to be such a thing when I was a kid.”

Malls, such as the Oakdale Mall in Johnson City, have big menorahs. Not so long ago, that wasn’t the case.

“It has changed a lot in a couple generations,” Weinstein said. “We’ve commercialized it so much in this country that it’s become an ethnic fest … and I guess that’s a good thing. It’s certainly not bad.”

This trend has also slowly made Hanukkah appear to be the Jewish Christmas, which it definitely is not, said Rabbi Daniel Fellman of Temple Concord in Syracuse.

Fellman said he has also noticed a change in the holiday in his lifetime.

“My parents kind of made it a big thing, but not huge,” he said.

The change has come from two connected trends, Fellman said: The increasing commercialization of the holiday, and the growing number of interfaith families.

Hanukkah, he said, was not traditionally a gift-giving holiday. There is such a holiday — Purim — but that comes in the spring. It’s a festive holiday, comparable to Carnival or Mardi Gras. Today, only more conservative Jews tend to celebrate Purim the way it once was.

But the expression of Judaism in America has changed over time, and in recent decades much of that change, including the role of Hanukkah, can be linked to interfaith families, Fellman said.

“The growing influence of Hanukkah parallels the growing number of interfaith families,” he said.

Fellman said this shift comes from the Jewish half of interfaith families emphasizing Hanukkah “to balance the influence of Christmas.” This, too, has led Hanukkah
to become more of an assertion of Jewish identity, because the holiday has “no theological value,” he said.

The reality is that Hanukkah was, for much of Jewish history, not that important, Weinstein said. It’s not even an official religious holiday, he said. It commemorates a rebellion of a faction of Jews called the Maccabees against Seleucid Empire and
the rededication of the Second Temple on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Yet the account of that rebellion didn’t even make the cut for the Old Testament (i.e. the Jewish Bible) but is included in the New Testament in the Book of Maccabees.

But now this very minor holiday has an increasingly outsized role in modern American Jewish life.

And that turns off some Jews, especially older Jews, Fellman said.

“For a certain segment of the Jewish population, it makes the holiday seem fake,” he said. “Because for them, the current experience is not the same.”

On the other hand, the holiday now provides an opportunity for a celebration of Jewish identity, which he supports.

“To spend more time on identity, I think that’s great,” he said.

Nance Wilson, chairwoman of the literacy department at SUNY Cortland and the college’s coordinator of Jewish studies, said she used to decorate her house when her daughter was younger, but now that her daughter is in college, she’s doesn’t do as much.

The influence of Christmas is everywhere, said Wilson, so she wanted her daughter to have something comparable to call her own as a Jewish child.

Wilson, who lives in Cortland, would hang dreidels and paper decorations, light menorahs for everyone in the house, place Hanukkah decals in the windows and rearrange the living room furniture to clear a special place for the gifts.

Now that Wilson’s daughter is grown, they light the menorahs but skip most of
the other decorations. But they still make potato latkes and doughnuts — two fried foods that are especially popular during Hanukkah. Part of that goes with the history — the oil is seen as symbolic of the one of the miracles during the Maccabean revolt, when a day’s worth of oil in a lamp lasted for eight days.

“Hanukkah is not a major holiday,” Wilson acknowledged, “but in many ways it has become one due to its placement on the calendar.”