by Gil Troy
Updated December 2007 version of article first published in The Canadian Jewish News - 28 November 2002, B2-B3
Jews are preparing to celebrate Hanukkah, our festival of lights, during a particularly dark period. The world seems to have gone mad. Islamic extremists declare war on the West, and many Westerners, especially in Europe and Canada , deny and dither, afraid to respond too assertively. Iran threatens to destroy the United States and Israel , conducts a conference denying the Holocaust, and redoubles efforts to go nuclear, yet the world appeases – and continues funding the regime by remaining addicted to oil. Palestinians declare a war of terror on Israel, Hezbollah continues attacking Israel even after it withdrew from Southern Lebanon in 2000, and too many, including Israelis and Jews, are quicker to blame Israel, the victim, than the terrorist perpetrators. The terror has slowed but not disappeared -- Israel has stood strong, but there are too many victims throughout the world, still reeling from the blows on the Lebanese border last year and in Sderot on a regular basis, let alone in London and Bali , Madrid and Mombasa . Too many communities have been scarred by this scourge.
It is precisely during such bleak moments that we are compelled to celebrate. Rejoicing in past victories helps put our current troubles in perspective, reminding us that we have suffered before, and not just survived but thrived. Moreover, with terrorists trying to rob innocents of any joy, and any semblance of a normal life, observing holidays becomes yet another act of defiance, a leap of faith asserting our commitment to stick to the everyday.
Nevertheless, even as we celebrate, it behooves us to reassess the meaning of the holidays, thinking about how we observe them. Precisely now, during this time of crisis, we should be rededicating ourselves to Jewish renewal, finding the joy in Judaism, not just the "oy." Such a reevaluation is particularly necessary in the case of Hanukkah, a holiday whose meaning has changed over the years.
While Hanukkah’s basic plot line has remained unchanged for almost two millennia, the Hanukkah we know and love is a twentieth-century invention. The central themes we associate with Hanukkah, of heroism and power, both physical and spiritual, were Zionist ideas; for centuries the Rabbis dwelled on the miracle of the oil. When the Zionist revolution a century ago reevaluated Judaism, the Maccabees’ story proved that Jewish history was not just about the anti-Semites who hated us and the Rabbis who taught us. The Maccabees were home-grown heroes, rooted in Israel ’s ancient soil, and willing to fight, if necessary, for their homeland, their beliefs, and their freedom. In fact, before World War I, many Jews used Hanukkah as an opportunity for giving not receiving, donating the modern equivalent of the "shekel," the Biblical coin, to the Zionist cause.
At the same time, the other great twentieth-century Jewish revolution, the rise of North American Jewry, also transformed Hanukkah. As with Passover, the theme of "freedom" resonated in the land of liberty, giving the ancient Jewish holiday a contemporary American flavor. But, even more important, the quirk of scheduling, as well as the anthropological linkage to another winter-solstice festival of lights, made for the gift-giving frenzy we see today.
As a delightful holiday of dedication, Hanukkah has long been child-centered. Traditionally, Jewish communities used Hanukkah to rededicate themselves to their children’s Jewish education. In that spirit, parents gave children "gelt" or coins to sweeten the experience of Torah study.
In the modern world, this festival of gelt-giving and of lights became the popular Jewish response to Christmas envy, the malady that seized many a Jewish household each December. In fact, with eight nights, and thus eight opportunities for gift-giving, Hanukkah became a way for Jews to trump their Christian neighbors.
Tragically, both Hanukkah and Christmas have become "Festivals of Consumption," in the late historian Daniel Boorstin's apt phrase. A minor sweetener to facilitate Torah study has become the major focus of the holiday, even as this traditionally minor holiday has become a major highlight on the North American Jewish calendar.
Once again, then, we have a chance this year to rededicate Hanukkah, and ourselves, to reorient the holiday. It is time to rejuvenate the holiday by making it a highpoint on our tzedakah calendar, our schedule of giving, while teaching our children about generosity not just materialism. It is not realistic, nor necessary, to declare a gift-giving ban. Most of us, thankfully, do not have to choose between self-indulgence and good works. Moreover, to set up false choices by being too austere, defeats the educational purpose behind the gelt-giving. But is it too much to ask for this year, that every family, every school, every Jewish institution, every Hanukkah get-together carve out some time to think about others who are less fortunate, others with whom we should share our good fortune? Is it too much to ask that as we teach our children the joy of receiving gifts from loved ones we also teach them the joy of giving gifts to strangers?
The smallest of gestures can teach this most important of lessons. During the traditional Hanukkah grab bag, one additional toy can be thrown into the hopper, and that toy can be designated for a child in need. Similarly, children awash in presents could be asked to give one old toy and one new toy to tzedakah. Relatives from far away who are going to send Hanukkah checks can be encouraged to allocate part of their gift to a charity of the children’s choice, or parents and children can agree on a certain percentage of all gifts to be donated. Even more important, acts of loving kindness, good deeds, should be encouraged so we go beyond many Jews’ tendency to assume that the only way to help others is materially.
This Hanukkah, of all Hanukkahs, why not take advantage of the eight nights, the eight candles, to designate our thoughts, our prayers, and our gifts of time, talent, and money in the following directions:
On the First Night of Hanukkah, let us dedicate ourselves to the Victims of Palestinian Terror, the casualties of the recent Second Lebanon War, and most especially the embattled citizens of Sderot, hoping to bring a little light into their lives: Terrorists have slaughtered more than 1000 people in Israel since 2000, and maimed thousands more. Hezbollah killed nearly 150 others, soldiers and civilians, Jews and Arabs, during the summer of 2006. Thousands of Kassam rockets have rained down on the good people of Sderot. We must adopt families of the victims, embracing them, supporting them, befriending them, sending both love and money. Right now, we should focus our efforts on helping out the people of Sderot. The Hesder Yeshiva there has proven to be an essential force for community building there, doing good and holy work. For more information on how to adopt the people of Sderot and support this amazing institution, visit http://sderot.org/index.php.
Another way to make a strong stand of solidarity with the citizens of Sderot is through http://sderotmedia.com/?cat=5.
To support Camp Koby , a magical summer camp that works with survivors of terror, healing sons and daughters, brothers and sisters of victims, visit www.kobymandell.org/home.htm.
On the Second Night of Hanukkah, let us dedicate ourselves to the three Israelis kidnapped last summer, and those who are still Missing in Action, honoring their heroism, and that of their families: More than 500 days ago, Gilad Shalit, a 20-year-old with a shy smile, was kidnapped by Hamas near Gaza; Ehud Goldwasser, a 32-year-old engineer, and Eldad Regev, a 27-year-old pre-law student, were kidnapped by Hezbollah. Their pain – and their families’ suffering – is our pain. Our worlds will not be complete, our holidays not fully joyous, until they come home – and we have not done enough for them. These three families share a unique bond of anguish with the families of Ron Arad, Zachary Baumel, Zvi Feldman, and Yehuda Katz, who have been missing since the 1980s. Write your representatives demanding information and action. For more information, including a petition to sign, visit http://www.kidnappedsoldiers.com/phpPETITION/index.php.
On the Third Night of Hanukkah, let us dedicate ourselves to the Children of Israel, who deserve to live in freedom, free of fear: Israeli society has proved itself remarkably resilient, but the 2006 war, combined with the economic troubles of the last few years, took its toll. Even as the security situation has stabilized, and the economic numbers have improved, there is far too much poverty in Israel , and the gap between the rich and the poor is growing greater than ever. We must be proactive not just reactive, thinking about how to help improve the quality of Israeli life. One lovely initiative is the Jade Bar Shalom Books for Israel Project, an attempt to get new and slightly used English books sent to Israeli schoolchildren to help compensate for budget cutbacks. Since July 2005, over 41 tons of donated English literature and reference books have been delivered to over 200 of Israel 's Jewish, Druze, Bedouin, Christian, Bahai, and Muslim public schools. For more information about this project, including how to set up local chapters, access http://www.edu-negev.gov.il/bs/b4i/.
On the Fourth Night of Hanukkah, let us dedicate ourselves to the Institutions of Israel, the well-oiled infrastructure which keeps the society functioning: Even as we champion new initiatives, we need to continue supporting agencies that have laid the foundation for the Jewish state, and help make it thrive. To name only a few, during these difficult times, Hadassah continues to maintain and modernize Israeli medical facilities, the Magen David Adom (Israeli "Red Cross") serves all people in Israel under very trying circumstances, the Jewish National Fund continues renewing and rebuilding the land, the United Jewish Communities launched a special Israel Emergency Fund to rebuild in the north and in Sderot. This year, in honor of their heroic services to the citizens and soldiers up north during the 2006 war, make sure to support Rambam Hospital in Haifa as well, as part of the rebuilding effort: http://www.rambam.org.il/Home+Page/.
On the Fifth Night of Hanukkah, let us dedicate ourselves to Our Local Jewish Community, renewing our collective ability to help us renew ourselves and our own Jewish identities: Even while fighting fires abroad, we need to keep our home fires burning, as it were, by supporting our local synagogues, schools, Federations, agencies. If we do not create welcoming, exciting models for Jewish identity, we will raise a new generation of Hellenists not Maccabees. This Hanukkah is a perfect time to rededicate ourselves to Jewish education, on all levels, for young and old alike. We all need to be engaged in lifelong learning, the more formal, the better, the more time-intensive the better. More broadly, let us challenge ourselves by asking not only how much money am I willing to donate, but how much time am I willing to volunteer this coming year?
On the Sixth Night of Hanukkah, let us dedicate ourselves to neighbors in need, bestowing gifts on neighbors who are suffering: Most of us live in cities marked by huge disparities between haves and have-nots. Those of us who have should take the time to help those who have less, both Jews and non-Jews, seeing what we can do to make sure that none of our neighbors go to bed hungry, cold, or lonely, that none of our neighbors are deprived of the joy of celebrating this season. Wherever we stand on the War in Iraq , we should all stand united in support of the American troops, our idealistic, vulnerable, heroic knights in Kevlar willing to risk so much. Creative ways of supporting the troops include donating Frequent Flyer Miles so troops on leave can fly home for free (see http://www.heromiles.org); buying pre-paid calling cards so soldiers can call their loved ones for free (see http://www.operationuplink.org/) or sending messages of support (see https://wwwcfi.cnet.navy.mil/dearabby/). Given the seasonal coincidence between Hanukkah and Christmas, we have a lovely chance to make Christmas and Hanukkah wishes harmonize, as we celebrate Hanukkah by helping neighbors celebrate Christmas.
On the Seventh Night of Hanukkah, let us dedicate ourselves to non-Jewish friends and causes, understanding the power of affirming our common humanity, and helping one another: It is too easy, during these times of Jewish stress, to turn inward. These last seven years we have certainly seen the power of Hillel’s teaching, that "If I don’t care for myself, who am I?" And the strategy worked. The situation has improved dramatically. But let us not forget the second part which is "And if I only care for myself, what am I?" The United Way , Centraide, and dozens of other organizations are happy to help us help others, as are our local Federations. The crisis in the Darfur region of Sudan demands our action and our outrage. Let us not stand by idly, complaining of others' inactions, yet not doing anything ourselves. The American Jewish World Service has been a particular leader on this and other issues, combining education, advocacy and intelligent giving. Check out http://www.ajws.org/. For more information on Darfur , click http://www.savedarfur.org/. A great student-initiated movement to stop the suffering in Darfur is STAND, http://www.standnow.org/, or http://www.standcanada.org/ in Canada .
On the Eight Night of Hanukkah, let us dedicate ourselves to the Power of Teaching, of Leading Our Children by Example: If every night, we channel our children’s charitable impulses, giving a guided tour of the possibilities of giving, on this, the last night of Hanukkah, let us ask our children to take the first baby steps in this world of responsibility and great satisfaction, by asking them to pick a charitable deed, a mitzvah for someone else they plan on doing.
The time and resources are limited; the work is great – and overwhelming. Yet our sages teach that it is not upon us to complete all the work, nor are we free to evade it. No one should feel guilty for failing to carve out a charitable moment every one of the eight nights – yet no one should feel free to ignore this challenge completely.
For decades now, kids have greeted each other every morning of Hanukkah with the question: "What did you get last night?" This year, perhaps, we can also teach our children to ask: "What did you give?"
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and the author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today, which was just re-released in an expanded and updated edition.