It's been more than 2,000 years since the Maccabees rose up against their oppressors to reclaim our Jewish future, but the central challenge that faced our ancestors in the Chanukah story persists until today: How do we maintain a strong Jewish faith and identity amid a sea of "otherness"?
One difference, of course, is that we live in a country that bans the establishment of — and protects the freedom to observe — any particular religion. We have no fear that a malevolent leader like Antiochus will rise to power and forbid Jewish observance.
Still, the seeming clarity in the U.S. Constitution about our religious protection doesn't mean that the lines separating church and state aren't often murky and ambiguous. So, for instance, the debate over prayer in the public schools continues. Amid ongoing legal challenges, the laws and court decisions guiding these issues are not set in stone.
So, too, persist questions about what is and isn't allowed in the public schools when it comes to the December holidays. As this week's Exponent cover story shows, without state or federal guidelines, each school district is left to navigate on its own. The Anti-Defamation League distributes its own guidelines to hundreds of schools in the region. Called "The December Dilemma: December Holiday Guidelines for Public Schools," the guide is a valiant effort to help school officials proceed with caution.
But it still leaves local districts without clear and consistent directives. That autonomy might work for the most part around Philadelphia and its suburbs, where there presumably exists an awareness and understanding of Jews and other religious minorities. We worry more about areas with tiny Jewish populations. Even closer to home, as our cover story notes, confusion often prevails. Is it OK to bring a dreidel in to help explain the Chanukah holiday to classmates? Or is that too religious? How many Chanukah songs are needed to balance out a winter concert? And is balance even the goal?
As much as we recoil at the notion that we live in a Christian nation, especially when such rhetoric spews from political figures, this time of year serves as an annual reminder that it is true. It is impossible to escape the Christmas culture that permeates our society. Each of us may react differently to the ubiquitous din — some with true appreciation for the holiday lights and spirit, others cringing at the excessive Christmas motifs that engulf virtually every public cultural and commercial space. Many of us harbor a little bit of both; others worry about a backlash if we complain too loudly.
Unlike our ancestors in the 2nd century BCE, our lives and our religion do not hang in the balance. But we, too, must double our efforts to stay true to our own tradition when other choices beckon all around. Through personal and civic perseverance, we, too can let the light of Chanukah triumph.