This past Saturday night, I attended a Christmas party in Jerusalem. The host, an observant Jew, greeted me wearing a Santa hat. For the next few hours, me and the rest of the room full of mostly American Orthodox Jews sat around listening to Christmas carols and eating kosher candy canes.
But the truth is, that Christmas in New York is not a time I feel nostalgic about. When I look back at Christmases past, I’m met with a blur of images: watching TV with my parents, my friends and I roaming the streets of the Upper West Side trying -and failing – to find an open Starbucks, half-empty movie theaters where we snuck in our own popcorn, and finally, -ordering in Chinese food once we’d finally accepted that a post-movie Starbucks hangout wasn’t going to happen.
But none of this -with the exception of the notable lack of coffee -makes the day that much different than my typical Saturday night during high-school.
What I really miss is having a day off during one of the coldest, darkest days of the year – a day when I could just chill with my friends and family.
In Israel, all of the Jewish holidays plus Yom Haatzmaut are days off, for 9 days total of national public holidays.* But these days tend to be bunched together: September/October will contain 5 days for Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot. The next official vacation time is 2 days in April for Passover, then 1 day for Yom Haatzmaut in May, then 1 day Shavuot in June**. Then no holidays again until September.
This means that the average Israeli goes nearly 5 months without a single paid day off built into their calendar.
Add to that the fact that if you’re an Orthodox Jew, 8 out of the 9 public holidays are days when you can’t use electricity, cook, or drive. This means that for you, those days don’t feel like vacation in the typical sense of the word. It also makes those days inconducive to Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews spending time together. It’s bad for social cohesion among Israel’s Jewish population that all but one of its public vacation days are days where religious obstacles make it difficult for Jews of different religious views to encounter each other.***
I think that when many American Jews -especially Orthodox ones -miss Christmas, what they really long for is a day off in the middle of winter, that’s not tied to a Jewish holiday where they can’t use electricity – a day to watch movies and spend time with non-Orthodox friends and family.
Luckily, we have a Jewish holiday in the middle of winter, which is celebrated by many Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews. It’s also a time when Orthodox Jews can use electricity, cook, and drive, making it conducive to Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews celebrating together.
I’m talking about Hanukkah.
I propose that the first Thursday and Sunday of Hanukkah be a national holiday.
This would apply to both schools and workplaces -with the flipside being that the only days off of school for Hanukkah would be this extended Hanukkah weekend.
This would prevent the current situation whereby Hanukkah is a dreaded holiday for many Israeli parents, because there are no days off of work, but there are days off of school. As such, parents wind up either shelling out hundreds of shekels in childcare, taking their kids with them to work, using up vacation days -or some combination of all three.
The counter-argument might be that this would negatively impact the Israeli economy.
First of all, given that Israel already has among the highest number of working hours per week among Western countries, it should be able to “afford” adding in another eighteen annual hours of vacation for its workers.****
Second of all, the work days during Hanukkah are already being used by many people as vacation, or days to leave work early and/or bring kids to work, so making them official public holidays is not the same as making a random Tuesday a public holiday. You’re only “losing” 2 days when the Israeli workforce is already at half-power.
Also, just for the sake of comparison: America has 10 annual federal holidays. The UK has 13 annual bank holidays. Adding in the Hanukkah weekend would put Israel at 11 -just 1 day above the US, and 2 below the UK.
Most importantly, it would mean that no Israeli has to face the prospect of 5 months without a single paid day off of work, while creating a chance for Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews to spend time together, thereby creating comradery between Israel’s different communities.
I also suspect that it would severely lessen the nostalgia that many of my compatriots develop for Christmas in absentia.
As for me, I spent December 25th in the traditional manner – eating Asian food with childhood friends who were visiting Jerusalem. It was exactly what it should be: cozy and happy, surrounded by people I care about -but the date was the least special thing about it.
So this Christmas, I’m raising a mug of non-Starbucks coffee to the prospect of being able to eat Chinese food with people I care about on the day off of work that I’ll have during Hanukkah.
*The first and last days of Sukkot and Pesach (totaling 4), 1 day for Shavuot, 2 for Rosh Hashana, 1 for Yom Kippur, 1 for Yom Haatzmaut
**The Gregorian dates I listed are approximations and may vary between years, since the Gregorian calendar is solar and the Jewish calendar is lunar, but the amounts of time between the holidays stay the same, as do the general times of year during which the Jewish holidays fall out
***The fact that all public holidays in Israel have a Jewish or Zionist element is probably bad for social cohesion among Israel’s Jewish and non-Jewish populations, but that’s a larger topic of discussion.
****Disclaimer: I’m not an economist.