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Who’s Got Hanukkah Envy?

As the Festival of Lights gains exposure in schools, stores, and public displays, even non-Jews want to take part

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Second-graders from PS 1 learn about Hanukkah at the Eldridge St. Synagogue in New York City on Dec. 4, 2007. (Stephen Chernin/Getty Images)

Of course, the most basic form of Hanukkah envy is gift envy, as many gentiles assume that all Jewish kids get eight times the presents. (Not true, said Ashton: Though there may be a large gift or two, Jewish parents tend to give practical—read: boring— Hanukkah gifts, like socks or pajamas.)

For some non-Jews, Hanukkah is a convenient foil for the increasing commercialization of Christmas. Last year, Catherine Espinosa’s daughter Luna came home from preschool asking about Hanukkah. Though Espinosa was surprised, she wasn’t displeased. “It’s a nice impulse to realize that not everyone celebrates Christmas,” the Queens resident said. “Being a little educated about what other people are doing is part of how we celebrate Christmas.” Luna—after saying she has no intention of giving up Christmas—was singing “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel” while I conducted the interview with her mom.

Indeed, despite the ubiquity of “The Dreidel Song” in areas with large Jewish populations, Hanukkah has not, as most red-state residents can attest, reached parity with Christmas. “Christmas is America’s most popular holiday,” said Plaut. “Hanukkah is a holiday belonging to a cultural minority group. While they might compete, they are not on par with each other.”

At the same time, even as the array of Hanukkah-themed products grows, the holiday faces less danger of secularization—the way most Christmas celebrations today revolve around Santa, Rudolph, and presents, with no mention of Jesus. “I think Hanukkah actually has more depth and more meaning for American Jews than the commercialization often suggests,” said Ashton. “A lot of the fun occurs at home, at synagogue, at community events, and will have some religious objects and songs.”

Nonetheless, Hanukkah is becoming ever more fixed in the national holiday pantheon. Two years ago, there was the viral Hanukkah hit song “Candlelight,” by the Maccabeats; this season, DC Comics embraced the Festival of Lights with a Hanukkah-themed issue of Green Lantern: The Animated Series. The comic’s writer, Ivan Cohen, had pitched three Christmas stories and one Hanukkah story; editor Kristy Quinn, in the spirit of “inclusion,” opted for the Hanukkah story. “I like Christmas as much as the next kid, but there are lots of traditions,” she said. “Celebrating some of those differences was a natural fit for a comic like Green Lantern, where most of the crew isn’t from Earth.”

Jiming Liang doesn’t know yet whether Hanukkah will enthrall her son Aidan again this year. But if his love of beyblades and his previous enthusiasm for the holiday are any indication, she should probably steel herself for another eight-day round of dreidels, menorahs, and questions.

“He was asking me, ‘Why can’t we be Jewish?’ ” Liang said with a laugh, thinking back to last December when she had to explain that she’s not Jewish—she’s Chinese.

Then again, young children can be fickle. “Once we brought up the bacon issue,” Liang said, “he dropped the whole thing.”

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Paula Bojsen says:

You can be Chinese AND Jewish too. Just convert.

disqus_jJhUs9hR3X says:

My synagogue (in Washington State) has several Chinese-American Jewish members. A Chinese-American Jew who belongs to another synagogue lives on my block.

Also, I’ve never see Hanukkah Envy in the Pacific NW (BC, OR, WA). Must be an East Coast thing…

Tara Ballance says:

As a non-Jew, I identify very closely with Hanukkah. The desecration of the temple; its reconsecration through miraculous means: this festival is intensely personal for me, because I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. In my heart, Hanukkah transcends religious belief. It is a celebration of G-d’s love for all of us, even the most damaged.

Why shouldn’t non-Jews celebrate Hanukkah? It’s a festival celebrating freedom from a terrible tyrant. All freedom loving people can appreciate Hanukkah.

Last year I gave dreidels to all of my co-workers. Last week one of my co-workers asked if I was doing it again. Her 3-year old lost his and knew Hanukkah was coming up.

rightcoaster says:

Wow! Cool! How do I become Chinese?

rightcoaster says:

Wow! Cool! How do I become Chinese?

Yet I can only find one store in my city that sells menorah candles.

Or be adopted. My friend’s children are Chinese and Korean and they’re Jews.

Joseph G says:

I am VERY skeptical of the sincerity of non-Jews in any number having “Hanukkah envy”. The only sort of Hanukkah envy I am aware of is not new; it has to do with some non-Jewish children (who think of Hanukkah essentially as a Jewish Christmas) being envious strictly of the length of Hanukkah: “8 DAYS! COOL!”

Honestly, if I had my druthers (which of course I don’t), I’s prefer to see, say. New Year’s Day, or the winter solstice, made into a universal fit giving holiday season holiday, and decouple the religion based holidays from the gift giving celebration.

Why not? The fact is, Christmas itself has historically NOT been the big seal it is today. It became the big (and largey secularized) gift giving extravaganza gradually, starting sometime I’m the 19th century. Prior to, New Year’s Day was more like Christmas Day is now in many places. The puritans used to actually have laws AGAINST celebrating Christmas.

Of course, my hare brained solution to “the Christmas dilemma” will never happen, but it would be best for all – from Jew to foaming at the mouth fundie to agnostic Xmas celebrator and all on between and besides – of it were. Everybody could share the same good time without feeling the need to be awkwardly politically correct or make a big deal out of a little holiday like Hanukkah, etc.

But I digress…

Joseph G says:

Uh, you obviously have an Internet connection, so you could’ve just found ‘me online.

But save your money – by the time you posted this, Hanukkah was already over. Better luck next year.

Melody Bier says:

Are you kidding? I don’t know what planet you are living on,but here in the SF Bay Area most people don’t even know what Channukah is! They know more about Ramadan than any Jewish holiday.

Melody says:

Interesting article but someone should tell Jiming Liang that one can be both Chinese and Jewish.

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Who’s Got Hanukkah Envy?

As the Festival of Lights gains exposure in schools, stores, and public displays, even non-Jews want to take part

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