Hanukkah almost always falls in December, so the start of the eight-day Jewish holiday falling on Thanksgiving weekend is a bit jarring for some. There are those who prefer when Hanukkah is near Christmas, so they can tap into the Christian mega-holiday’s national excitement. Others like it because their kids are off from school for the long winter break.
But not Stephanie Butnick, a New York City podcaster who says she’s “relieved there’s some daylight” between the two religious holidays this year. “When you decouple it, you can think about what Hanukkah is. For the first time, there’s time to consider Hanukkah.”
What Butnick means is that Hanukkah is much more than just the parts of the story that are well known: Jews fighting persecution in the 2nd century B.C. had only enough oil for one night, but miraculously it burned for eight, allowing them to rededicate the temple in Jerusalem.
“To a lot of people, the meaning of Hanukkah is like when your cell battery is on low and it lasts two hours. It’s a very neat and tidy message,” she says. “But actually the story is really intense and much more, almost darker and more serious.”
Indeed, Hanukkah is generally marked as a fun, lighthearted and religiously less significant holiday, one puffed up and transformed by its proximity on the calendar to Christmas. Kids open presents (sometimes one for each night), play a gambling, spinning-top game called dreidel, and eat fried foods like doughnuts and potato pancakes to commemorate the mythical oil.
But the story historians tell is heavier, about violent Jewish zealots called the Maccabees who were fighting back not only against the religious oppression of the Greeks, but also against fellow Jews who adopted Greek ways, such as idol worship. The Maccabees killed Jews who wanted to assimilate, and to stop doing Jewish things like keeping kosher and circumcising.
Sorting through these conflicting interpretations of Hanukkah is taking on new energy in 2021 America, a place with rising antisemitism and intense interest in identity, says Butnick. “A lot of people I know are thinking lately about their Jewishness and what makes them unique and different.” Butnick just had her first child and cohosts a podcast on Jewish news and culture called “Unorthodox.”
“I think we’re starting to revisit the historical background of a lot of our holidays and looking with a more critical eye,” said Laurie Solnik, a retired Jewish lay leader who lives on Capitol Hill and likes the early, separate Hanukkah — but not how it schlepped this year into Thanksgiving weekend (though she did plan to serve potato latkes with her Thanksgiving meal).
“We’re not going to give up our myths; they give us amusement and comfort. But if you break [Hanukkah] down to its most elemental aspects, it’s a grim holiday.”
Hanukkah has always had varied and competing narratives, depending on the era and the specific Jews celebrating.
In the decades after the founding of the state of Israel, after World War II and the Holocaust, there was an emphasis on the power of the small band of fighters at the center of the story — the Maccabees. In the Hanukkah story, a Jewish priest named Mattathias and his sons led them in a bloody revolt against the much larger group of Greeks and the pro-assimilation Jews.
Hanukkah for children of the ‘60s, ‘70′s and ‘80s “was a celebration of young Jewish boys being strong, Jewish, and proud. There was an emphasis on Jewish masculinity,” said Jacques Berlinerblau, a professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Jewish Civilization. “Unlike Passover, it’s not one where we talk a lot about it, we just do it. It’s not the type of holiday you want to take a deep look at.”
The holiday’s theme of the few vs. the many became a focus in the early decades of the new, small state of Israel, often at war with its many neighbors, said Rabbi Moshe Hauer, executive vice president of the Orthodox Union. “Many saw that as part of the Hanukkah they related to. There were explicit lines drawn between the Maccabees and the emerging Jewish warrior.”
There has always also been the aspect of Hanukkah about light, in particular a small, metaphoric light that’s able to illuminate or shine in a wider darkness. That can be an all-purpose symbol for anyone, or be about the role of responsibility of Jews to be a unique light. Some feel that has become proportionally larger along with a modern interfaith movement emphasizing sameness.
Marion Haberman, a D.C.-area mother of three small children, said the heightened political division and isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic changed her perspective of Hanukkah. It made her appreciate the religious obligation to light candles, as a way of publicly showing light, and solidarity. The metaphor of light is powerful, she said, when “the climate doesn’t seem so close-knit anymore.”
Haberman, 36, says she dislikes the early holiday date because when much of the culture is marking Christmas, “you feel left out.”
Recently, the part of the story of Hanukkah about not assimilating lands differently for young Jews considering their place in America, said Adena Kirstein, executive director of Hillel at George Washington University, where earlier this month a copy of the Torah in a frat house was found torn and soaked in detergent.
“The old message of 15 or 20 years ago was: It’s all about unity. Now it’s all about identity and difference. The Jewish story is in conflict between sameness and difference. On the one hand, our grandparents fought so hard for us to fit in, to pass, quote-unquote. We want that, but we’re conflicted. Now someone views me as ‘White,’ and it’s like: ‘No, I’m Jewish.’ ”
Her Hillel compiles holiday gift packets for students to be sent from their parents, and this Hanukkah there are about four times as many orders as normal, she said. The packets include a menorah, dreidels, gelt (chocolate money used for gambling), and other sweets.
Events on Hanukkah in recent years have spotlighted Jewish difference in negative or controversial ways.
In 2019, a man barged into the home of a rabbi in Monsey, N.Y., during a Hanukkah celebration and stabbed five people with a machete, one of whom died. Investigators later found antisemitic writings in the suspect’s home.
Former President Donald Trump picked Hanukkah to sign an executive order meant to strengthen protections against antisemitism on college campuses. The order says Jews can be considered to have been targeted on the basis of their nationality or race, triggering controversy over whether it was “othering” American Jews and also limiting criticism of the state of Israel.
Yossi Gestetner, who lives near Monsey and served as spokesman for the community in the wake of the 2019 attack, said this year there will be the first community event commemorating the victims. Last year’s commemoration was very limited by the coronavirus. It will be on the Saturday night of the holiday, like the attack was.
Hanukkah has always been open to different interpretations, Gestetner said, but in Orthodox Judaism, there is always emphasis on a miracle surrounding the renewal of the holy temple. And in recent years, there have been more antisemitic incidents in the United States.
“We have more than one party [during the eight days], good food, family, and friends. It’s a general focus that the Jewish nation was under siege and they had a miracle and here we are, years later, still kicking and screaming,” he said of Hanukkah.
“These conversations have been going on among Jews forever. Should we be more like us? Like them? Hide or celebrate our particularities? Do you put a mezuzah on the door or not want people to know much about you?” said Butnick. “It’s comforting, especially in divisive times, that Jews have been fighting about this forever.”