The Grinch of Thanksgivukkah
by Rabbi Mindy Avra Portnoy
It was cute the first time I heard it. But by now, I’m really annoyed every time it appears on a screen or in print. “Thanksgivukkah” – yes, I’ve seen the video, perused the recipes, been preached to by my colleagues on-line who want to explain the commonalities of Thanksgiving and Chanukah – the quest for religious freedom, the parallels with the Maccabees belatedly observing Sukkot, the harvest festival (I get it!), and as always (especially in our “foodie” era) the obsession with food. Also, lest I forget, there is this once-in-a-lifetime confluence of these two holidays (although the date of Thanksgiving having been proclaimed by President Lincoln in 1863 and by federal legislation in 1941, it does not strike me as very long ago in Jewish terms). And forgive us, our Canadian cousins, for ignoring the fact that you celebrate the holiday on a different day!
Having been a “cranky old lady” well before my chronological time, I hesitate to even enter the fray. Lighten up, I tell myself; and yet … I must ask: why do we always have to compare Chanukah with something else, whether for good (i.e. this year) or for bad (every other year, when it comes near or on Christmas)? Why must we persist in aggrandizing Chanukah by forcing absurd parallels? And how will we argue against the “Christmakkah” appellation next year when we’ve been so pro-“Thanksgivukkah” this year? Why can’t we just let Chanukah be Chanukah?
Over the years, I have come to cherish the smallness of the Chanukah candles. Against the garish cartoonism of much of December’s over-merchandising, the little candles (distinguished only, and then only in recent years, by their rainbow hues) barely (bravely?) stand out. They are meant to be small, proclaiming two unlikely miracles: the victory of the Maccabees (Hasmoneans) over the grand armies of Antiochus IV Epiphanes in the second century B.C.E; and the ultimate survival of Judaism, a minority religious group, among other majority religious groups (then the cult of Antiochus and Hellenistic religion, later Christianity and Islam).
The cost was often paid in blood, exile, blatant and subtle discrimination. It is not easy to be different, stubborn (“stiff-necked”, as the Bible puts it), or as we used to say in the old days (but are more embarrassed to say now) chosen. Despite everything (“lamrot ha-kol”), despite unimaginable horrors and pressures, we Jews somehow remained Jews and remained a people in the world.
Look closely, the candles seem to say: we’re still here, surprisingly, perhaps. You may have to look carefully for us, because we are more integrated into the larger society (a current de rigueur note: see PEW study). We don’t always “look” Jewish (whatever that means anymore!), our names don’t always “sound” Jewish, we are now major players in the majority world. Could the Maccabees have imagined our status now?
Yet in our world today, the dangers are still out there – there are those who would still be happy to see us disappear, and would be more than ready to at least blow out the shamash (the guiding candle) that is Israel, if not the rest of us as well. We’re not as safe as we would like to pretend.
And then there is that other knotty problem, our internal one: what is it that we’re preserving as a Jewish people? (PEW once again, if you insist on percentages) Why do we still insist on being ourselves, and not just become someone else? Some of our Orthodox family think we Reform Jews have already fallen over the abyss into blatant Hellenism. We can angrily dismiss those claims, but the questions persist: who are we? why do we keep on being Jewish?
Why, after all, are we still lighting these candles night after night, year after year? How do we keep the little flames alive?
This year, we have a special opportunity to teach about Chanukah AS IT IS, instead of as the “un-Christmas”; to celebrate our physical and spiritual survival as Jews; to honor a light that never stops burning (as Cynthia Ozick has written, “an urgent tiny flame of constancy that ignites the capacious light of freedom”).
This year, the entire eight days of Chanukah stand firmly on their own, a separate ritual, metaphorically marking a separate people and tradition, which might not have survived without those brave, controversial, and (yes!) fiercely anti-Hellenistic Maccabees and the creative rabbinic spiritual interpretative layer of a tiny vial of oil.
Do we really have to transform these miracles into an over-hyped, commercialized Thanksgivukkah?
Rabbi Mindy Avra Portnoy is the Rabbi Emerita of Temple Sinai, in Washington, DC, and is the author of the groundbreaking children’s book, “Ima on the Bima”.
cross-posted at RavBlog