Even in Phoenix the evenings can get chilly during Chanukah and I was cold as we stood by the huge menorah at the city hall plaza. The Chabad rabbi lit the candles with a torch while a handful of Jews and dozens of vagrants looked on. There were some holiday songs and then volunteers handed out warm potato latkes to all. That’s why the vagrants were there, free food. One of them, obviously more than slightly inebriated, stood to the left of me waiting for his handout. This man was twice my width and a good head and a half taller than me. His breath stank of alcohol and he began swaying slightly. As he swayed farther and farther to the right I envisioned him collapsing on top of me. There was no escape so I quickly I gave him a shove to the left, stabling him, and then grabbed my husband.
“It’s time to go!” I announced. He didn’t challenge my judgment. Rather he helped round up our children and we headed home for hot baths and bowls of soups.
What had I been doing in downtown Phoenix in the first place? The answer was simple. I wanted to give our children a healthy dose of Jewish pride to counteract all the Xmas carols, decorations, and advertisements.
I guess it was that desire for Jewish pride that makes so many American Jews turn Chanukah into a major holiday from the minor one it’s supposed to be. In my home my mother always strung dreidyls, menorahs, and six-pointed stars from the light fixtures and windows inside the house. Not usually one to bake she would take out the flour and sugar every winter and bake sugar cookies. Hers weren’t shaped liked trees or Santas, but rather, again in the forms of the dreidyls, menorahs, and six-pointed stars. And then there were the presents. My mother loved giving gifts and as Chanukah drew near she scurried through the stores. There were presents for my father and presents for all of my cousins, and eight presents for me, one for each night of Chanukah. Those combined with all the gifts my aunts and uncles gave me meant that I made out just as good, if not better, than my non-Jewish friends every December.
When I was in 7th grade I overheard someone say, “Chanukah is just like Xmas except it’s for Jews.”
I’d been standing in the cafeteria line and it was a Jewish girl, a year older than me, new to Wichita, who had made that statement. I was appalled. I wondered if her family even lit a menorah. That was the focus of Chanukah, not the decorations, cookies and presents. Didn’t she know that it was a holiday to commemorate the triumph of the weak over the strong, the few over the many, the pure over the impure, the righteous over the wicked, and the Torah learners over the willful sinners. Chanukah was a holiday that affirmed that we were Jewish and different.
Eavesdropping on that girl made me think about my own Chanukah celebration. At some point I decided I didn’t want it to be in competition with Xmas. Once married my husband and I made a conscious decision not to give presents for the holiday. Instead of putting up Chanukah decorations we proudly placed our menorahs on the windowsill. The sages taught us that in order to celebrate Chanukah properly we need to publicize HaShem’s miracle for all to see.
While our lights shone we always tried to sing Chanukah songs, speak words of Torah, and tell stories. We made special foods, invited guests, and went to Chanukah parties. That’s how we ended up in downtown Phoenix celebrating Chanukah with a bunch of non-Jewish drunks.
The following year, though, we moved to Israel. Now we still try to make each day of Chanukah special but we don’t give a thought to competing with Xmas. Our Jewish pride comes from living in a Jewish country and following the Jewish laws of the Torah, both given to us by HaShem.