Hanukkah Celebrates the Right to be Different

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Why can’t you just be like everyone else?

Because I’m not like everyone else.

Hanukkah, a Jewish holiday celebrated in December (usually)*, is all about being different and standing up for the right to be different. Hanukkah celebrates the right to be different.

Hanukkah is a minor Jewish holiday commemorating a historical event.

Jewish holidays are split between “We survived, let’s eat” holidays, and “Really bad stuff happened, let’s fast” holidays. Hanukkah, a celebration, is one of the “let’s eat” holidays.

There was a period during the Second Temple (in 164-139 BCE) when Jews in Syrian-Greek-run Judea were banned from practicing Judaism, by penalty of death. In this small territory within their empire, the Syrian-Greeks wanted Jews to assimilate, behave like the rest of the Syrians, and abandon their traditions. Uniqueness was no longer tolerated. They kicked the Jews out of The Temple, and turned it into a pagan temple.

Hanukkah celebrates the success of Jews in fighting for their rights to practice Judaism and eventually regaining full access to The Temple. Without this event, it is unlikely that Jews would exist today.

In short, Hanukkah is about the right to NOT conform to the majority. Hanukkah celebrates the right to be different.

The irony of the timing of the holiday is that it also falls at the hardest time of the year to be different. For me, the two months leading up to Christmas exert huge pressures to conform, to be like almost everyone else, and to celebrate American Christmas traditions. But Christmas isn’t a Jewish holiday, and it has no overlap with Hanukkah other than time of year.

Fighting social pressures is stressful. I experience constant feelings of cognitive dissonance as I try to tune out the things around me during the Christmas season. It creates the worst annual feelings of loneliness and otherness in me. And I have it every year.

It’s not that I feel left out from everyone else’s Christmas celebrations. Rather, the overwhelmingly pervasive idea that EVERYONE in American culture celebrates Christmas denies the experience of anyone else who doesn’t. My unique existence is being denied, and therefore I must not be part of this “EVERYONE”. Even some people, with the best intentions, seem to think Hanukkah is just “Jewish Christmas.” And it most certainly is not. The two holidays are completely unrelated and often at odds in philosophy (anti-assimilation versus assimilation).

Illustration by Deborah Sigel

I was talking to a fellow Jewish female engineer about some of her recent experiences working in aerospace, where there aren’t many other women. We worked together at NASA and taught a fun engineering class at a local California high school. After a while, she said, “You know, I’m just used to always being the outsider.” Sigh. It’s hard existing in a space where you are significantly different from everyone else around you. It creates feelings of otherness, to say the least.

Nu?** What can you do?

Well, when it comes to Jewish thought, we like to say “Two Jews, Three Opinions.” How Jews celebrate this time of year is a prime example of this.

Each family chooses how they’ll celebrate Hanukkah, a holiday about surviving assimilation, along with how much they’ll participate in American cultural Christmas traditions. We do a mix of avoidance, acceptance, and celebration, in order to experience Hanukkah and deal with the ever-present, overwhelming pressures of Christmas.

For a humorous kids book on this very awkward relationship, I highly recommend Lemony Snicket’s “The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming, A Christmas Story.” (It is in fact, not a Christmas story… well, kind of. Regardless, it’s amazing, and it captures the strange overlap of these holidays.)

Below is what my family and I do this time of year to honor the tradition that Hanukkah celebrates the right to be different.

Avoidance

At the beginning of the school year, I typically let teachers know that we’re Jewish and don’t celebrate Christmas. That way, if we need to get into the “Please don’t force my kid to sing Christmas music” or “No ornament projects, please” discussion later, there’s no surprise. (And honestly, it’s only happened once in 7 years, so that’s not bad).

I avoid stores like the plague this time of year to minimize my exposure to the shopping insanity, heavily scented stuff, and Christmas music. (Yes, I know all the songs, but don’t like the lack of choice over listening to it).

I don’t participate in fundraisers that are Christmas-focused (poinsettias, “Holiday” gift catalogs in red and green, hams (not kosher), and shelf-stable sausage logs (very not kosher), even when they contain token Hanukkah stickers that are typically done incorrectly and have nothing to do with Hanukkah. (Inclusion when done incorrectly is just bad cultural appropriation). These catalogs send a clear message that I don’t count, so I don’t participate. I find other, more inclusive, times to participate in fundraising efforts.

For more bad cultural appropriation, consider this Santa Claus figurine wearing a Tallit, a Jewish prayer shawl, which can only be worn by Jews who are adults (13 or older). Whether intended humorously or not, by not understanding the context behind a religious item while trying to blend Hanukkah and Christmas traditions (which I’d argue are immiscible), the result is something inappropriate that might even be offensive to some Jews.

I don’t put up a Christmas tree or Christmas lights. They have nothing to do with Hanukkah traditions. I do however use “strings of LED lights” (Christmas lights) to light up my snow forts over the snowy part of the winter, and find them really helpful to light up a sukkah at night during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot.

Acceptance

When friends invite us to Christmas parties, I usually say yes. It’s a chance to enjoy another culture’s holidays, cooking, and the joy of hanging with friends. It’s like going to a birthday party. We celebrate birthdays that aren’t our own, right? Hanukkah celebrates the right to be different and we can still appreciate what’s going on around us.

I love crafting and I have personally made a ton of ornaments as art projects in school, but I always saw them as toys with an annoying loop of string on the top. Sometimes the joy of making something matters more than what someone else thinks its intended use is.

However, I am irritated when a company hands out ornaments to everyone as a company Christmas gift. This is another example where assuming that everyone does something (celebrating Christmas), makes a minority feel like they don’t count or don’t exist. To make myself feel better about the situation I used to joke about getting matched pairs of ornaments so I could make giant gaudy earrings.

Celebration

Illustration by Deborah Sigel

In my family, we make Hanukkah special by focusing on togetherness, especially in the evenings when we light the Menorah.

Hanukkah is a festival typically celebrated at home, and it starts after sunset. We light a Menorah, a candelabra with 8 candle holders plus an extra called a shamas that is used to light the other candles. We light one additional candle per night, until, on the 8th night, all 8 are lit. I follow a tradition I learned in college that while the candles are lit, which is for only about 30 minutes, everyone stops what they’re doing and takes a break to be together and do something fun or relaxing. We like to sing Hanukkah songs, eat gelt (chocolate coins), play board games, play with the dreidel (a 4-sided top), and hang out together while the menorah is lit.

It’s traditional to eat something fried on the holiday, so we’ll occasionally eat latkes (potato pancakes) with applesauce or sour cream, or sufganiyot (jelly-filled donuts).

We, like most Jews in the US, give gifts to children on Hanukkah. This is in acceptance of the social pressures of Christmas, as Hanukkah isn’t traditionally a gift-giving holiday. No one likes the feeling of the unfairness of being left out and not getting presents when everyone else does, so this has become an American Hanukkah tradition. (For this reason, I also don’t have my kids do public present opening at birthday parties). In my family, Hanukkah gifts are inexpensive and are given one a night (or until you run out). My kids make a list of what they’d like from me and other family members, and often get to shop for them too. So when they open a gift on a Hanukkah night, the surprise is about which gift it is.

You might sometimes see a car menorah parade or a giant outdoor menorah lighting during Hanukkah. They are opportunities for everyone to come together and hang out, and get some nice kosher parve (non-dairy) donuts. You can find a schedule for this year’s Vermont outdoor Hanukkah events here.

After celebrating Hanukkah with my friends and family, I feel a little more connected and proud of my unique identity. I find that Hanukkah creates moments of peace and calm in my busy day, often as I watch the swirling chaos of Christmas preparations going on all around me.

If you find yourself having one of those days when you feel like you just don’t fit in, just remember, it’s ok. For generations, there have been people who have felt this way or been treated this way, including my own. Some have even fought for the right to be different. Hanukkah celebrates the right to be different and you have that right too. You are beautiful just the way you are. Now go find a friend with some latkes (or tater tots) or sufganiyot (or a donut) and a board game, and celebrate being not like everyone else.

*The date of Jewish holidays is set by the Jewish Calendar, a lunar calendar, that has 12 months of 29 or 30 days, with 1 leap month (Adar 2) that is added on 7 out of 19 years (years 3, 6, 8, 11, 14, 17, and 19). This repeats on a 19-year cycle. Relative to the Gregorian Calendar, which most of the world uses, Jewish holidays appear to be early some years and late some years, by a max of about a month. Hanukkah can fall as early as Thanksgiving (“Thanksgivikah”) or after Christmas (yeah, after Christmas sales!).

**Nu means “so” or “well” or huge list of other greetings in Yiddish.

***The number 18 has symbolic meaning in Jewish culture and religion. The letters in the word cHai, meaning “life”, have a numerical value of 18. So often donations (tzedakah) and gifts will be given in multiples of 18 (180, 360, 1800, etc).

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drawing of a Hanukkah menorah

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Deb is a mechanical engineering consultant, STEM educator, artist, and parent in the Burlington area. She is also the co-owner of the Vermont Idea Company. Deb has designed parts of Mars Rovers, astronaut tools, underwater robots, and eye implants that enable the blind to see. She has years of experience teaching fun hands-on STEM workshops and camps focusing on fundamentals of engineering (often by destroying things) and empowering kids to build their own giant creative things with tools. She currently teaches Arduino and Space Design courses to high school students at the Governor's Institute of Vermont. As an artist, she loves learning new ways to make things and integrating those new skills into her art. She dabbles in illustration, woodworking, silversmithing, sculpture, fabric, food, and more. In her free time, you can find her picking blueberries, inventing a new toy (like an interactive phone switchboard for her preschooler), or making kreplach and challah with her kids.

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