Columns Jeffrey Salkin: Martini Judaism Opinion

Why can’t the New York Times get Hanukkah right?

Rabbi Jeffrey Myers leads a gathering in Hanukkah songs after lighting a menorah outside the Tree of Life synagogue on the first night of Hanukkah, Dec. 2, 2018, in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh. A gunman shot and killed 11 people while they worshipped on Oct. 27, 2018, at the temple. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Every few years, the New York Times runs a contest: “Best Essay About Hanukkah By An Ambivalent Jew.”

That is the only explanation for this past week’s crop of New York Times op-ed pieces about Hanukkah.

“The Gray Lady” is showing signs of advanced Jewish arteriosclerosis.

Take yesterday’s article, “That’s One Alternative Santa.”

The author, a comedy writer,  begins with the traditional disavowal of any substantive Jewish connections or affiliations.

In theological terms, there is little love lost between me and Judaism. But culturally — with my unwavering devotion to [Howard] Stern on the radio, [Philip] Roth on the page, [Bob] Dylan on the stereo and kugel in the oven — I am a Hasid.

This self-identification as a Rhett Butler Jew — “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” — points him in the direction of embracing the “traditional” Hanukkah symbol — Hanukkah Harry — a fictional character on Saturday Night Live.

My wife, who grew up in Italy, seemed skeptical. “Did you learn about Harry at Hebrew school?” she asked. “I don’t recall,” I said, truthfully. “It was a Reform temple, so they mostly just talked about the Holocaust.”

First: about Jewish culture.

I love culture — high, low, and middle. Same with Jewish culture.

But, all forms of Jewish expression are not created equal. Maimonides is still better than Matisyahu — if only because two hundred years from now, people will still be studying Maimonides.

The self-proclaimed cultural Jew must realize that laughing at Howard Stern and loving Dylan, however enjoyable, is Jewishly infertile. It will not create another generation of committed Jews.

Second: the snarky remark about Reform Jewish education.

The author believes that the bulk of his religious education was about the Holocaust. I somehow doubt that, but it doesn’t matter.

That was the piece that “stuck.” Why? It is the most dramatic. It is what has sufficed for too many Jews as their Jewish connection. As such, it is far too negative to serve as any kind of regular link to a joyful Jewish identity.

Did it sting to see my movement “dissed” in the pages of the Times? Yes.

Do I, as a Reform rabbi and educator, feel chastened — about the time we dedicate to real Jewish learning in a way that would produce lasting Jewish Velcro?

Also, yes.

The author continues:

As my fellow Jews the world over light menorahs, the eternal flames twisting through centuries to connect them to their woebegone forebears, my family will gather to pay our respects to Hanukkah Harry, the Not Ready for Prime Time Player who delivers toys to Jewish girls and Jewish boys.

I am sad: that this admittedly ignorant Jew would place the utterly trivial — c’mon, this is an SNL skit! — before the public as a reflection on Hanukkah.

I am sadder: that he missed the original joke. The SNL appearance of Hanukkah Harry was intended, I think, to satirize the Jewish need to create a competitor to Santa Claus.

I am disappointed: that the New York Times thought this was worthy of publication.

Which brings me to the earlier Times reflection on Hanukkah: The Hypocrisy of Hanukkah.

The author writes that Hanukkah had always been “an afterthought on the Jewish calendar…commemorating what has to be one of God’s least impressive miracles — a small container of oil lasted for eight nights!”

Today, he believes, Hanukkah has become a “Semitic sidekick for Christmas, a minor festival pumped up into something it was never meant to be so that Jewish kids won’t feel bad about not having a tree.”

That is not why Hanukkah got big.

First, the miracle of Hanukkah was not the miracle of oil. The ancient rabbis invented that story, as a way of deflecting attention away from the real miracle, that they deemed too dangerous to promote.

Which is: a tiny band of Jewish fighters — the first “band of brothers” — took on the strongest army in the world.

And, defeated them.

If you like that military miracle story, here could be one reason.

We know that story. It is the story of the state of Israel.

Hanukkah is about modern Jewish self-definition. That, rather than Santa Claustrophobia, was responsible for the revival of Hanukkah.

And, it is about a small, seemingly minor religious culture that stood up to the most aggressive culture in the world.

And held its own against them.

Which reminds me…

This December marks the fortieth anniversary of one of the most explosive articles to ever hit the New York Times. It appeared in the “Living” section. It was “Christmas Comes To A Jewish Home,” by Anne Roiphe.

In that article, Anne described how her Jewish family celebrated Christmas — complete with Christmas stories, fables from other cultures (none of them Jewish) — and yes, the tree.

The you-know-what hit the fan. Postal workers suffered from hernias carrying sacks of angry letters to the Times office. Rabbis had enough sermon fodder to last until Passover.

Then, something happened. Anne Roiphe endured an unexpected tsunami of anger. She got to thinking. Hmnn: if people are this angry, then perhaps, just perhaps, I have missed something in Judaism.

Maybe I need to take another look.

The result: her memoir, Generation With Memory — one of my favorite Jewish books, the chronicle of her quest for meaning in Jewish life.

It did not take long for Anne Roiphe to win the “most improved Jewish camper” award. She became one of the most respected Jewish women writers of our time, even meriting a regular column in the Jerusalem Report.

Perhaps this week’s two authors will experience a small amount of push back on their essays. Perhaps the pushback might encourage them to take a serious  look at a tradition that they have only sought to trivialize and/or to misinterpret.

Perhaps some rabbis will reach out to them, and want to become their teachers.

This is, after all, a season of miracles.

Happy Hanukkah!

 

 

 

About the author

Jeffrey Salkin

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality and ethics, published by Jewish Lights Publishing and Jewish Publication Society.

19 Comments

Click here to post a comment

  • An eight candle menorah in my book, cannot be right. If the oil lasted seven days, you would have a genuine miracle. I’m just saying because the Father is a little sensitive about these things.

  • Hannukah is referenced at John 10:22 ff. in the Christian Greek Scriptures. There it’s called the “Festival of Dedication”.
    There is an incident involving Jesus, who was walking in Solomon’s colonnade.
    There is little reason to think he was involved in the festivities. He was often at the Temple teaching; the colonnade would be a natural refuge from winter weather.

  • He might not like being called Father. Rabbi means teacher.

    Duck!!! Here comes a lightning bolt!!!
    🙂
    And, as I understand the story, the oil did last “miraculously”.

  • Why are you surprised Rabbi?
    The NYT and the rest of the mainstream media hates and mocks religion and those of faith on a daily basis.
    Anything that doesn’t fit with their modernist view of the world is to be attacked and ridiculed.
    Keep the faith brother.

  • Exactly my point. The fourth candle is the Light of the World. The fourth candle is the fourth Day. Jesus is the fourth Day, the fourth generation; three before him and three after him. Six days shall man work and on the seventh he will rest.

  • “Jesus is the fourth Day, the fourth generation; three before him and three after him. ”

    That’s all well and good. But it has zilch to do Hannukah. Its Christian glomming and attempted erasure/replacement of Jewish belief surrounding it.

    Akin to what Muslims do with appropriating Jesus as one of their prophets. I am sure you would find offense if they use parts of the New Testament to say Christianity is merely a step towards the newer improved prophetic works of Mohammed.

  • Noah sent out the dove three different days. The Spirit of Jonah came to rest on the Promised Land, on the fourth Day.

  • Rabbi Salkin, just wanted to say thanks for a good column I’ve enjoyed for a long time. Thanks.

  • It seems the Rabbi didn’t read the entire article, or chose to address a minor point.

    “According to most modern scholars — and a few rabbis I called on to help me out — the story of Hanukkah is based on a historical conflict between the Maccabees and the Hellenized Jews, the former being religious zealots who lived in the hills of Judea and practiced an ancient form of guerrilla warfare, the latter being mostly city-dwelling assimilationists who ate pork, didn’t circumcise their male children and made the occasional sacrificial offering to pagan gods.

    “Some of the details are up for debate, depending on which texts you consult. But everyone agrees that the Maccabees won out in the end and imposed their version of Judaism on the formerly Hellenized Jews. So Hanukkah, in essence, commemorates the triumph of fundamentalism over cosmopolitanism. Our assimilationist answer to Christmas is really a holiday about subjugating assimilated Jews.”

    https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/01/opinion/sunday/the-hypocrisy-of-hanukkah.html

  • It seems to me the rabbi has missed an important point.

    He writes: “Take yesterday’s article, “That’s One Alternative Santa.” The author, a comedy writer,…..”

    I mean, really, rabbi, why give any credence to material ostensibly intended to be serious, but written by a comedy writer? Or, for that matter, anyone other than a serious, thoughtful individual?

    Unfortunately, this is the kind of nonsense the media love to do.

  • As an atheist I’ve been mocked, my views attacked and ridiculed and one occasion someone wanted to kick my a@@. There are many ideas in religion that need to be criticized and the First Ammendment gives us both the right to hold and voice our views. It should be relatively civil and not personal – rare on this site.

  • why should i, listen to anyone who can’t even spell Chanoochah correctly. the eevreet word chanoochah, means dedication in english.

    and even leave out, ELOHEEM’S involvement in The Maccabees rebelling against the greeks. if ELOHEEM, did not command their success then they would not of succeeded. we, are all here in THEIR Seven Day Physical Story being dictated by THEM.

  • Chanukkah is not actually a celebration of the Maccabee military victory over the ancient Greeks, for Jews do not commemorate military victories in holiday form. Chanukkah actually celebrates a miracle that happened right after the Maccabee military victory. The Jews regained control of the Temple in Jerusalem and only had enough oil to burn the Temple’s light for one night.

    Also, it’s wasn’t just a conflict between ‘religious zealots’ and ‘Helenised Jews’, but between the ‘religious zealots’ and the Seleucids, with whom the ‘Hellenized Jews’ were allied. You could also think of it as a civil conflict between “country Jews”
    and “city Jews”, or as a straight-up revolt against a foreign occupier
    (Antiochus and the Seleucids, who the writer chooses not to mention).

  • I think that’s what the NYTimes writer was saying. Notice he does not say the holiday is _actually_ a celebration of a military victory, but “in essence, commemorates the triumph of fundamentalism over cosmopolitanism.”

  • Didn’t the Temple priests remain, or become, Hellenized? Probably not to the extent of defying Jewish priestly law but culturally?

  • The military victory enabled the rededication of the Temple. I thought the holiday was to commemorate the rededication/resanctifying of the Temple and the renewal of faith. But then I’m not Jewish so my understanding has no doubt been wrong.