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Is the 'C' in Chanukah for Commercialization?

December 18, 2008 By:
Ben G. Frank, JE Feature
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"Chanukah, O Chanukah, come light the menorah," go the familiar words sung for generations at the holiday -- which begins this year on Dec. 21 at sundown -- commemorating the Jewish struggle for religious freedom and national survival.

But did previous well-wishers envision that their descendants would light a Shrek menorah, a Disney menorah, a singing Maccabees menorah -- all of which can be found today, for instance, at J. Levine Books and Judaica in New York City.

Nor, could they imagine dreidel or menorah-inflatables, or baseball-bat menorahs, or dog and cat menorahs, or dreidels full of jelly beans. And what about that Happy Chanukah teddy bear with a plush dreidel at bargainjudaica.com?

"It's over-the-top," said Danny Levine, the fourth-generation owner of J. Levine.

No doubt about it, business-wise, Chanukah in the United States has become commercialized. Levine points to its commercialization as really getting under way in the 1970s and gaining ground in every decade. "It keeps exploding," he added, pointing out that one reason for its expansion is the growing number of interfaith families.

Chanukah is one of the best-known Jewish holidays in the country, obviously because of its proximity to Christmas. Many non-Jews (and even many assimilated Jews!) think of this holiday as the "Jewish Christmas," adopting many of the Christmas customs, such as elaborate gift-giving and even decorating.

"It is bitterly ironic that this holiday, which has its roots in a revolution against assimilation and the suppression of Jewish religion, has become the most-assimilated, secular holiday on our calendar," wrote Tracey R. Rich on JewFAQ.org.

Levine points out that, "in America, we are dealing with a culture that glorifies the Christmas story and that has become super-commercialized."

No 'Jewish Christmas' Here
Madelyn Heyman, owner of Bala Judaica, in Bala Cynwyd, one of a number of stores in the area offering Judaica, also points out, however, that her clientele comes to buy Chanukah items "to retain Jewish significance, rather than making it a Jewish Christmas." She stresses that much of the stock in her store consists of Israeli products.

A strong consensus comes through in interviews that even with commercialization, Jews want to keep the spiritual side of Chanukah alive. Most rabbis and educators interviewed agree with Rabbi Lance J. Sussman, senior rabbi at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel, in Elkins Park, that the commercialization is both good and bad; or, put another way by Rabbi Jay M. Stein of Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley, "Commercialization, like technology ... is not good or bad, but how it's used."

Sussman pointed out that the commercialization is good, in terms of environment, and it is bad in the sense that the religious message can get lost. But he emphasized that "the environment provides us with an opportunity to provide a significant Jewish experience for our people."

Stein expressed a similar point of view. "The job of the rabbi and Jewish educator is to take the access points and drive meaning into them so that commercialization is not the end product," he asserted, pointing out that even if the focus is on a silly menorah, "it gives me an opening to tell what the menorah is all about."

He cites the explosion of Judaica, the unprecedented freedom Jews have here, and their creativity. "As we become less embarrassed as to who we are, and as we become more confident in our identity, we will feel more at ease with our symbols in the public arena," he stated.

Rabbi David Straus of Main Line Reform Temple, Beth Elohim, in Wynnewood, maintains that seeing Chanukah products in establishments like Genuardi's grocery stores is a "positive reinforcement" of our Jewish life in a secular world.

"In many ways, that is the message of Chanukah -- how to live in two worlds, Jewish and secular."

In the final analysis, Rabbi Josh Davidson of Temple Beth El, Chappaqua, N.Y., notes, "Especially for those who are trying to find spiritual fulfillment, Chanukah has become an opportunity to teach our children the most-cherished religious values."  

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