Contrary to what most would want to believe, the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah does not carry the same weight as Christmas does for Christians.
A minor holiday on the Jewish calendar, Hanukkah is actually very different from Christmas, said Sandra Lawson, a rabbinic student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia.
One difference between the two is that Hanukkah can be considered a floating holiday.
“Hanukkah moves around a lot so it can actually show up in November,” Lawson said.
Because the Jewish calendar is lunar based, Hanukkah can land anywhere between late November and late December. In addition, Jewish holidays begin the night before. So for example, while Hanukkah appears on the calendar for December 21, 2011, it actually began the night before.
Jewish days begin at sunset, Lawson informs.
Another difference is that for other major Jewish holidays, like Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, working during those holidays are not permitted. But for Hanukkah, there is no prohibition of working.
Jews with children are much more likely to celebrate Hanukkah, Lawson points out.
“All we are required to do is light a candle each night, say a blessing and place the candle near a window so that the light may be shown,” she adds.
For adults, it really doesn’t matter, said Robin Washington, editor in chief of the Duluth News Tribune, and co-founder of the National Alliance of Black Jews.
Washington said recently he was at a Christmas party where it turned out a majority of the attendees were Jewish; the host was Christian, however.
“The adults all had to double-check when Hanukkah was,” he said. “It simply goes off your radar screen when your kids are older or grown.”
When there are young people involved, however, Washington said Jewish parents can’t help but keep up with Christmas. He calls it “good parental preservation.”
“If you want to keep the peace, you’d better have Hanukkah Harry stop by to put presents around the menorah,” he added.
Do black Jews celebrate Hanukkah differently than other Jews? Lawson suggests there are some cultural differences, but overall everything is the same.
Jews all over the world are lighting the candle and saying their blessings, she said. The outline is the same.
“Black Jews are still Jewish. Our texts are very clear about how we celebrate the holidays,” she said. “I can walk into any synagogue and follow along because the text will be in Hebrew. If you are a religious Jew, you are going to celebrate it the same.”
Lawson said what is funny is when Passover, one of the more major Jewish holidays, comes along everyone wants to be a Jew of color. Why?
“Because of the food,” she said.
And while we are on the topic, the point should be clarified that being black and Jewish is not as much of a differentiation for Washington and Lawson.
While most would flinch with astonishment when they hear black and Jews in the same sentence, Washington actually considers it a gift.
“You have to recognize this is my reality from birth. It’s like asking ‘How does it feel to have curly hair?’ I can’t tell you how it feels to be anything other than black and Jewish,” he said.
And for those who are Jewish by choice and not birth, Washington quotes retired Charleston, S.C., police chief Reuben Greenberg who said of his conversion, ”’People who hate blacks hate Jews;’ it’s not like he was going to gain or lose any friends.”
Being a “double minority” affords Washington the wonderful opportunity “to always consider the ‘other.’”
He said there have been times when in a group of blacks he has often been the only Jews, and in a group of Jews been the only black person.
“So to black folks, I can raise the Jewish point of view that they may not have thought of, and vice-versa. Since I’m very vocal, I’m not shy about doing that,” he said. “Luckily, I haven’t been disinvited to too many dinner parties because of it!”
And Washington also makes another point that the scenario of being the only is changing rapidly.
Lawson agrees. She states that Jews are becoming more and more “brown.”
With Christmas, Hanukkah and a series of other religious holidays falling around the same time of the year, there has been much debate regarding what is the more appropriate way to categorize the season. Should we say Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, Happy Hanukkah?
For Washington, it really does not matter…well, somewhat.
He said if someone wants to wish him a Merry Christmas without knowing that he is Jewish and not Christian; then it does not matter to him at all.
“And there isn’t time in the elevator to explain otherwise, fine. I’ll even say Merry Christmas myself if it’s Dec. 25 and I’m talking to a friend who I know is Christian, especially if it’s a co-worker who’s getting the day off because I’m filling in,” he said.
“But if the debate is that people should say Merry Christmas for the purpose of promoting America as a Christian nation and be damned — literally — if you’re a Muslim or Jew or anything else, then that’s obviously disrespectful.”
Lawson does consider it a problem to assume that everyone is Christian or celebrates/recognizes Christmas.
“Not all people celebrate Christmas…privilege religion in society can easily overlook others. If you walk around having to say merry Christmas to everyone you are assuming that everyone celebrates it,” she said.
Not only are there Jews or Muslims who do not celebrate Christmas, but what about atheist or others who do not celebrate it at all, she asks.
“Saying Happy Holidays is more inclusive because you are recognizing that not everyone celebrates Christmas,” she said. “But my problem with happy holidays is…holiday cups.”
Most holiday cups display symbols that represent only one “holiday,” Christmas.
“That’s not a holiday cup, that’s a Christmas cup,” she said. “We say Happy Holidays, but all you see are Christmas symbols. That is where we fail as a society. The right thing to do is to try and be inclusive to as many people as possible.”