I will admit it: Chanukah is a holiday I've approached with diminishing enthusiasm over the years. I'm not into latkes; I prefer egg rolls. Dreidel games aren't nearly as much fun as Scrabble. And as the holiday approaches, so, too, does our loaded debate: Are we giving gifts this year or what?
It wasn't always this way. Growing up in a non-observant-but-you-have-to-go-to-Sunday-school household, Chanukah was a pretty awesome holiday that was on par with — scratch that, better than — Christmas. I remember the excitement building in the air as my mom hung a "Happy Chanukah" banner in the window.
We lit the menorah every night. The extended family would have a party at my grandparents' place. And then there were the presents: 16 blue-wrapped boxes, divided into two piles — eight gifts for me, eight for my sister. Every night we made an exciting choice: Which one should we open tonight? Sometimes the boxes contained the practical, like pajamas or slippers, two great passions of my mother. Sometimes they were just pure fun, like games or stuffed animals.
As we got older, things changed, of course. Multiple gifts were rolled into a single one. The family Chanukah gathering dissolved. Once I was living on my own, I'd probably find my way to a menorah once or twice over the holiday. Chanukah was more or less uneventful — it became downright complicated when my husband, Julian, entered the picture.
His family didn't exchange gifts during the holiday; to him, presents weren't part of the Chanukah equation. But I'd feel slighted because I thought it was meaningful for spouses to exchange a gift or two. He'd be insistent that we light the menorah; I'd feel weird because we rarely, if ever, lit Shabbat candles — and Judaism considers that a much more significant holiday.
Over the years, as married couples do, we've whittled each other down. I'm pretty certain Julian now knows to buy me a present, and I am committed to lighting the menorah.
Still, I felt there had to be a better way to connect with Chanukah. And now that we're parents, the situation seems more pressing, as I'd like for our young son, Leon, to look forward to Chanukah the same way I did.
Or do I? Am I just teaching him to love Chanukah because, hey, who doesn't love getting presents? And if we're strict about the menorah but lax about Shabbat candles, are we sending the wrong message? How exactly should we be celebrating Chanukah, anyway?
Of course, we're not the only ones confused. Even the story of Chanukah has its variations: The book of 1 Maccabees portrays Chanukah as a military victory over an evil king; 2 Maccabees sees it as a victory of pious Jews over the assimilationists. It wasn't until rabbinic times that the whole miracle-of-oil thing came to light. Given that we Jews can't even agree on a spelling for the holiday — Chanukah? Hanukah? Hanukkah? — it's no wonder that a shroud of mystery surrounds it.
I've come to realize, however, that my approach is all wrong.
"The interesting thing about Chanukah is that it's had different definitions in different years," said Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, president of CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a pluralistic Jewish think tank. "In every generation, Chanukah has been a celebration of overcoming whatever the biggest challenge the Jewish people were facing."
In fact, the rabbi said that my questioning was appropriate.
Hirschfield pooh-poohed my hang-ups, starting with concerns about lighting candles on Chanukah while often skipping the ritual on Shabbat.
"To be able to perform one mitzvah is a tremendously exciting thing," he said.
So, too, did he wave away the argument that presents have no place in a so-called "minor" holiday?
"Ever look at a kid's face when he or she opens a present?" he asked. "It's a real problem that we're taught that gift giving is unspiritual."
"There are more ways of celebrating Chanukah than people who want to [celebrate it]," explained Hirschfield. "The only wrong way to celebrate this holiday is effectively not to celebrate it at all."
And so, my rocky relationship with Chanukah is on the mend. We're still not sure exactly how we'll celebrate this year, but I can tell you this: There will be love and gifts. We'll light the menorah — and we'll take it from there. u
Lisa Keys is a family living columnist for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.