Fundamentally Freund: The grinch who stole Hanukka

Why dilute the festival of its eternal meaning, and replace its evocative Jewish symbolism with a passing fad?

michael freund 88 (photo credit: )
michael freund 88
(photo credit: )
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of a very special book, one that has entered the cultural consciousness of Americans young and old. It was in 1957 that the celebrated children's author, Dr. Seuss, released his classic How the Grinch Stole Christmas, about the acerbic individual who tries to prevent Christmas from coming to his neighbors in mythical Whoville. Failing to grasp the meaning of the holiday for its celebrants, the Grinch callously aims to undermine their festivities. It is unlikely that Dr. Seuss could have known just how popular his work would eventually prove to be, giving rise to a series of television and film adaptations, countless parodies, and even a Broadway musical. But what he surely never imagined was the extent to which some Jews would one day try to emulate the actions of the central character, gleefully distorting the meaning of Hanukka in pursuit of their own dubious agendas. Yes, that's right, there is now a Grinch trying to steal Hanukka. And he comes in many forms. For some, the holiday has become a mindless exercise in consumerism, as we try to outdo our non-Jewish neighbors by giving an abundance of presents each night, thereby burying the true meaning of the holiday under a pile of wrapping paper and ribbons. For others, Hanukka has been shorn of any historical, religious or even cultural content, and become just another vehicle for promoting unrelated, and not necessarily even Jewish, issues. In the process, of course, many Jews have lost sight of the underlying message of Hanukka. This is a dangerous development, one which feeds into growing assimilation and mounting Jewish ignorance, and it cannot be allowed to continue. Take, for example, a story published last week by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in New York, which was rather diplomatically headlined, "Groups seek to infuse new themes, agendas into Chanukah observance." The thrust of the article is how a variety of Jewish groups have stripped away the uniquely Jewish historical and religious component of the holiday in an effort to promote environmental concerns. Some outfit called the Shalom Center, we are told, is using Hanukka "to encourage switching to more energy-efficient light bulbs." Two other groups, the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), are taking the light-bulb issue one step further. Their brainchild, if one can call it that, is a project called "A Light Among the Nations," which "aims to get Jews to switch to compact fluorescent light bulbs during the holiday." WHY ALL this talk of light-bulbs, you might ask? The idea, said JCPA Executive Director Rabbi Steve Gutow, is really quite simple. "It's substantively a part of the holiday because there was a time when we really needed to have a little energy go a long way," he explained, apparently with a straight face. "We call that time Hanukka, and it was a time when we were at a nadir of our ability to find energy and to use it," he said. If Rabbi Gutow's thinking is anything approaching mainstream, then I would dare say that American Jewry truly is at a nadir, only not the one that he might have in mind. Now, don't get me wrong. Promoting conservation and environmental awareness is important, so long as it is done in a sensible and responsible manner. But why must it come at the expense of the Jewishness of the festival? Why dilute Hanukka of its eternal meaning, and replace its evocative Jewish symbolism with a passing fad? It would be tempting, of course, to dismiss these initiatives as just another example of how American Jewish organizations have grown so woefully out of touch with our collective heritage. After all, if the best they can do to generate interest in their activities is to hijack the meaning of Jewish holidays, then they really are in need of a serious strategic re-think. But frankly, I find their efforts insulting and even offensive. And I'm sure the Maccabees of old would be surprised and disappointed to see how some of their descendants have reduced their heroic defense of Judaism and the rededication of the Temple into little more than an excuse for a shopping spree or a marketing campaign. The lights at Hanukka symbolize our national triumph, and our undying faith in God and His promises of Divine restoration and redemption. The Jewish people did not risk their lives over the centuries to kindle the Hanukkia, whether in Siberian prisons or Nazi death camps, merely because they were concerned about global warming or even saving the whales. Our forefathers did so because they knew, deep down, that just as the candles stand ram-rod straight, giving off light in defiance of their surroundings, so too the Jewish people would one day do the same. And that just as our ancestors had merited to serve God in Jerusalem, so too shall we. There's nothing wrong with trying to evoke new layers of meaning and relevance in our ancient traditions in order to appeal to larger numbers of Jews. But there is something very wrong in using Hanukka as a talking point, while simultaneously ignoring its role as a turning point too. So to all those who are trying to distort, disrupt and disfigure this most beautiful of holidays, I say: keep your hands off Hanukka, and let us light our candles, and bask in the true meaning of the festival, in peace.