Stephen Stern
Dr. Stephen Stern PhD

Who Owns Chanukah

Years ago, an administrator at a place where I worked, was concerned about inclusivity and asked me to speak about Chanukah not long after it was over.  My expressed fear at the time was that lecturing on Chanukah during the holiday season strongly suggests that it is a Jewish Christmas.  Although Christmas is a sacred Christian holiday, Chanukah is not sacred for Jews.  I suggested that I speak on Pesach in April, one of our oldest holidays (3,000 years) through which one may show a great deal about our sacred-traditions. I was told, no, that they wanted a holiday season Jewish lecture on Chanukah.

Of course, this isn’t to say one is unable to draw sacred meanings from the Chanukah story and rituals. We do, but then we can draw sacred meanings from lots of things. The point was clearly that they wanted their Christmas celebration, but felt they could not if there was not some minimal level of representation for other religions. They were trying to create a false equivalence. The Director of HR and I circled around the issue, eventually telling me it was his boss who was demanding it. The Director wanted me to do him a favor.

In retrospect, I wish I had, but the struggle over it gripped me with the felt sense we are only allowed to be Jewish when Christians (or post-Christians still embodying Christian norms, but without God) find it desirable. It’s a horrible feeling, I told him, to have it dictated to us when and how to be Jewish. He said to put the point in my lecture. No, I insisted, that’s the point, by just giving the lecture at the time of Christmas was to designate it the Jewish Christmas, even if I said that it’s not the Jewish Christmas. Optically, the act of the lecture would undermine the content.

Ultimately, another Jewish colleague gave the talk they wanted. Her viewpoint was that any visibility keeps us from being completely erased; although a third, more cynical colleague argued that it was not about inclusivity at all, but the false appearance of being inclusive, so they have covered their collective backside when having the better-attended Christmas extravaganza they really wanted.  I could see both sides, but to be honest I don’t know any Jew or other non-Christian or even Christian who experiences American celebrations of Christmas as diminishing inclusivity. Whatever. They got their lecture.

What hadn’t occurred to me at the time was that we could do both. When it hit me, I realized that it solved all the problems. They got the inclusivity fig leaf and I got to speak about Judaism in a way that was meaningful. It had the additional virtue of actually furthering actual inclusivity. So, it was with great excitement that I inquired about HR sponsoring a lecture on Pesach. They didn’t respond. Again, I inquired. No response.

Let’s rewind. HR came to the Jew hired to educate about Judaism to give a lecture on Chanukah. Their hired Jew said, if you really want to be inclusive, let’s do it on Pesach. They said, no and refused to sponsor any lecture except one on Chanukah by a Jew who happened to be Jewish, but not hired to educate about Judaism. So, my question is this: where did their comfort in directing when Judaism is in the discussion come from? Why do people who express a concern about inclusivity not feel that they have to ask Jews how Jews think they need to be included?

It’s their comfort in determining how and when Jews can be Jews that shades me with Jew-hatred. Don’t get me wrong. These people are not Nazis. If their child married a Jewish person, they’d be thrilled with the exoticness of it and what it says about them and their openness. They had no malintent. Nevertheless, the silence also shows their power over the community. The inclusivity they wanted to show began and ended with an hour lunch lecture on Chanukah. The workplace “holiday party” was really a Christmas party and should have been called a Christmas party. Be honest. Call it what it is.

This is a microcosmic example of the power of the powerful – where it wants what it wants, e.g. inclusivity, but only on its terms. This is historical privilege in which our being included means bending to their privilege. As if historical power is saying, “We don’t want to feel what we’re doing is what we’re really doing, thus we need you guys to bend to our privilege.”

This comfort can be traced to the historical absenting or erasing of Jews from history. If we do not address it, we will continue to have few defenses against Jew-hatred on the left and the right; we will continue to reduce ourselves to only politically fighting against it. We need to do more than that. We must awaken to the fact we have become inadvertently complicit in the absenting of Judaism from its historical contributions to more than one civilization. Our complicity comes from a lack Jewish education.

It is jaw dropping how much of Western Civilization is built upon the colonialism, theft and subsequent 2,000 year attempt to bury Judaism. It’s known as the longest hatred; 2,000 years of Western civilization absenting or erasing Judaism, 2,000 years of writing that if one is informed by Judaism, one is a threat to the security of Western Civilization. David Nirenberg  documents much of this in his monumental work, “Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition.” Read it!

But it is incumbent upon us to see where we are being made invisible in small ways every day and to stand up and show ourselves.  We can’t do this until many of us understand that we have been Judaically absented from ourselves by the Colonizers explanation of us. Chanukah may not be a sacred holiday, but its lights can light our way to hearing our traditions that command treating one another as sacred ends as opposed being the means to the end of someone else’s history.

About the Author
Dr. Stephen Stern is the author of The Unbinding of Isaac: A Phenomenological Midrash of Genesis 22, Associate Professor of Jewish Studies & Interdisciplinary Studies, and Chair of Jewish Studies at Gettysburg College
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