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The Persistence of Chanukah

December 18, 2013 By:
Carin M. Smilk, JE Feature
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Godiva Chocolatier in King of Prussia is one of many shops still offering Chanukah goodies.

Flip through television channels these days and you’ll find reruns of an old Saturday Night Live episode with a young Adam Sandler, strumming a guitar and singing “The Chanukah Song.” It first aired Dec. 3, 1994, with the actor lamenting the fact that so little of the month had to do with the Jewish holiday.

Nearly two decades later, the times certainly have changed.

Chanukah has moved into the American vernacular, this year more than ever. So much so that two weeks after the last candle was extinguished, Chanukah is still here. Even though family menorahs have long been polished and put away, the symbols and merchandise associated with the holiday remain in public circles.

This year’s Chanukah ascent is largely attributed to the convergence of the first day/second night of the holiday with Thanksgiving, causing a perfect storm of media hoopla. The timing — and the focus on food and family — simply tickled the public’s fancy.

There was the coinage of the term “Thanksgivukkah” by a Boston-area woman, which caused many to smile and some to groan; and the “menurkey,” the turkey-shaped menorah drummed up by a boy from New York. That 10-year-old boy, Asher Weintraub, and the woman, Dana Gitell, both wound up with invitations to a Dec. 4 afternoon Chanukah party at none other than the White House, hosted by President Barack Obama.

But weeks later, the symbols persist.

Menorahs with their candles ablaze are at the post office, on stamps. Greetings and dreidels hang in large shopping centers and small stores as part of ecumenical displays. The Bryn Mawr Car Wash & Detail Center has a “Happy Holidays” sign where a lit blue menorah fills in for the “Y.”

A wintry window scene at Weichert Realtors in Wayne depicts a bright yellow menorah flanked by a large snowman and a wrapped present. The image was hand-painted by 21-year-old Jewish college student Jocelyn Giardinelli. Her mother, Samantha Giardinelli, who works at Weichert, said her daughter incorporated the ideas of the season, and “didn’t want anything that screamed just one holiday.”

Then there is Godiva Chocolatier in the King of Prussia Mall, which offers several shelves of blue-ribboned boxes of candy as part of an ongoing Cha­nukah display. Store manager Claritza Dolce said she was told by corporate headquarters to keep them up until Dec. 24. When asked if anyone was still buying them, she replied: “I believe people are.”

So what’s going on here?

 “Chanukah has simply become part of the month of December,” said Rabbi Lance Sussman, senior rabbi at Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park. “They leave it up as a sign of being inclusive. Like the greeting ‘Happy Holidays,’ it is part of the season — the echo is there. It’s actually very nice.

“The thinking is: Chanukah is a well-established festival, so while it’s Christmastime, we’ll leave the menorahs up as well,” continued Sussman. “They’re up there as a kind of statement; it’s a way of saying, ‘You’re here.’ It also reflects the number of mixed marriages” in the United States.

And yes, he acknowledged, the media might have paid more attention to it this year because of Thanksgiving. Still, he added: “I didn’t see a big menorah at the end of the Macy’s parade.”

The rabbi said that during the Shabbat following Chanukah, he took the opportunity to talk about the theme of rededication. He connected it to the Torah portion, Vayigash, when Joseph and his brothers rededicated themselves to the concept of family. He also noted the “Chanukah Habayit” prayer associated with hanging a mezuzah to a doorpost to dedicate a Jewish household.

“That process is our miracle,” he said. “Chanukah may be over, but the concept is always with us. Every day is Cha­nukah.”

Chabad Rabbi Menachem Schmidt agrees. “The idea of Chanukah is that the light increases every night, and the message doesn’t end. The entire month of Kislev reflects that idea. The next month, during Tevet, we try to illuminate the physical. We try to bring the light out of the darkness into the physical world.”

Along those lines, Schmidt, executive director of the Old City Jewish Arts Center in Philadelphia, hosted a reception Sunday for artists of the “Season of Miracles and Light” exhibition, which runs through Dec. 24.

One piece — a handmade paper work by Glenside resident Marlene Adler using mixed media — is called “Balancing the Hanukiah.” She said the piece attempts to portray “the fire of the Jewish people,” and the fact that “light is always around us in different ways.”

In that regard, “Chanukah extends,” said Schmidt. “Hopefully, people talk about it and continue to live with the theme.”

But some people don’t find it so appealing, especially the merchandising piece. Yelena Fayvilevich of Chester Springs noted that when she still sees menorahs everywhere, she wonders “if people even know that Chanukah is over.”

“What really bothers me is the dominance of Christmas over everything, the commercialism,” said Fayvilevich, who was born in Russia, where New Year’s, not Christmas, was the big event. “It happens with Chanukah, too. But it’s kind of hard when you don’t celebrate Christmas and it’s everywhere — the peer pressure is crazy.”

Rabbi Eli Freedman of Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Center City sees both the good and the bad in the continuing symbols of Chanukah.

“Part of me wants to say it’s over, Chanukah. But this year is very, very interesting,” he said. “Wasn’t it amazing how Thanksgivukkah swept the nation? It captivated everyone. It speaks to Judaism’s acceptance in America.”

But the lingering of the holiday — and he emphasized that it did not come early this year; “it took place on the 25th of Kislev, the same time it takes place every other year” — also gives him pause.

“In my mind, it underscores the idea that it has become, unfortunately, the Jewish Christmas. It takes away from the real Chanukah story — of assimilation, of Jewish identity versus secular identity.”

At the same time, said Freedman, there is the reality that even among the interfaith families who raise kids Jewishly, those children still have a non-Jewish parent and are likely going to be celebrating Christmas with extended family.

The December dilemma, at least this year, is moot, according to Freedman. The two holidays don’t intertwine at all; there’s no need for joint celebrations or debate over whose parents to visit.

For all Jewish families, he said, maybe “it’s nicer that this year is more separate. There is Chanukah, and there is Christmas.”

His synagogue bade farewell to Cha­nukah this year with a bang. A concert by the Israeli hip-hop/funk band Hadag Nahash on Dec. 4, sponsored by PhillyIsrael, brought between 300 and 400 people out on a night when many other events were happening in the city, including a performance by Matisyahu at the University of Pennsylvania.

And now? What’s happening at synagogues now that the gift bazaars are long over and the latkes have been eaten, now that the shoppers are out in full force and the general holiday fervor starts revving up?

“Things are so quiet; it’s calm,” Freedman said. “There’s not a whole lot going on. It’s actually really, really nice.”

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