Last December, Jiming Liang’s son Aidan came home from kindergarten really jazzed about Hanukkah. He was excited to play dreidel and he wanted to buy a menorah.
Thing is, Aidan’s not Jewish; he learned about Hanukkah from a parent volunteer at his public school in South Orange, N.J. But no matter: Aidan’s enthusiasm for Hanukkah endured for those eight days and beyond. He played dreidel nonstop (the way a 5-year-old boy can home in on a particular toy), he taught his family what the letters meant, and he was thrilled about the menorahs he spotted around town. Liang even had to buy another dreidel so Aidan’s younger brother, Finn, wouldn’t miss out on the fun.
The holiday season is right around the corner, and for many Jews, it means the start of the so-called December Dilemma: What do we do about Christmas? Do we embrace portions of the holiday, or ignore it completely? Do we make a big deal about Hanukkah in an effort to keep Christmas envy at bay?
But as Hanukkah’s profile continues to grow, a reverse phenomenon is arising among non-Jews: Hanukkah envy. Today, as Hanukkah traditions are taught in many public schools and Hanukkah decorations are increasingly present in public spaces, more and more non-Jews are are aware of, and even embracing, Hanukkah and all its trappings. This fall, Jay-Z used a menorah as part of his inaugural concert series Brooklyn’s Barclays Arena, lighting a candle backstage each evening of the eight-night run; three years ago, Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Mormon, composed an original Hanukkah song for Tablet (“I feel sorry I’m not Jewish sometimes,” he told the New York Times). Now that Hanukkah has been successfully elevated to the status of Christmas in many ways, there’s growing number of non-Jews who want to get in on the Festival of Lights.
“It’s not surprising,” said Dianne Ashton, professor of religion studies at Rowan University and author of the book Hanukkah in America: A History, out next fall. “We’re no longer a mass culture. People are much more aware of what happens in subcultures.”
Hanukkah, it seems, is not just for Jews anymore. Rabbi Joshua Eli Plaut, author of A Kosher Christmas: ’Tis the Season To Be Jewish, noted: “Hanukkah has migrated from the private domain to the public domain.”
Witness the ever-evolving celebration of Hanukkah at the White House: While President Carter was the first to light a menorah in a formal ceremony in 1979, it wasn’t until President Clinton’s tenure that the White House hosted a menorah-lighting ceremony, in 1993, as Plaut wrote in his book. President George W. Bush expanded the tradition by hosting Hanukkah parties, and President Obama was the first to issue a national Hanukkah message in both English and Hebrew.
With Hanukkah celebrated everywhere from the schoolhouse to the state house—and even in outer space, when astronaut Jeffrey Hoffman brought a menorah and a dreidel aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavor, which Plaut also writes about—it’s hard to imagine that, not long ago, Hanukkah was barely on the national radar. Back in the mid-19th century, German-Jewish immigrants embraced Christmas as a way to assimilate to American culture, Plaut writes. But by the latter portion of the century, Jewish leaders lamented the practice and made efforts to promote Hanukkah; synagogues threw Hanukkah parties, and Sunday schools held Hanukkah pageants.
It was during this same period that the commercialization of Christmas began, said Ashton, and the commercialization of Hanukkah soon followed. “Jews kind of caught up with a vengeance,” she said. “It was really a concerted effort, not just by businesspeople, but by Jewish organizations, rabbis, editors of Jewish newspapers. It was seen as something important for Jewish children to have this holiday.”
By the early 20th century, Hanukkah was promoted as a gift-giving holiday, a sort of Jewish counterpart to Christmas. “Jewish newspapers were encouraging Jewish families to buy gifts for Jewish children for Hanukkah, to make Hanukkah into something that will excite Jewish children so they don’t envy their Christian friends,” said Ashton. As this trend has continued—notice how the Hanukkah section at your local big-box store grows a little larger each year—the envy has begun to go the other direction.
Jamie Levine, a blogger at Motherhood Later … Than Sooner, first encountered Hanukkah envy last year when a non-Jewish friend of her daughter, Jayda, then 4, complained that she wanted to celebrate Hanukkah, too. “I was shocked,” Levine told me. “When I was growing up no one really paid attention to my holiday.”
Levine was even more surprised when another non-Jewish friend echoed the sentiment. Though Levine attributed the phenomenon to standard-issue, grass-is-greener envy, she invited both families to her Long Island home for a Hanukkah play date. “It was an opportunity to hang out and celebrate,” she said. “I got everyone dreidels and gelt. We lit the menorah together. We did the traditional thing; it was fun.”
But it’s not just kids who want a piece of the Hanukkah action. Take the annual Hanukkah-oriented party at Imagine Communications, a public-relations firm in Manhattan specializing in luxury travel. Despite having only one Jewish employee, the whole company embraces Hanukkah. The company’s president, Gabriele Sappok-Klink, explains that it happened organically: Three or four years ago, Sappok-Klink recalls, after a casual conversation about Hanukkah, account manager Lee Edelstein brought a dreidel to work and taught the game to some colleagues.
“It was very spontaneous,” Sappok-Klink said. “We gathered around his desk. … We sat down and started playing. We ended up playing for hours and hours.”
It was so much fun, she said, that they incorporated a game of dreidel into the holiday party—and the tradition stuck. “For us, the whole holiday spirit is about the dreidel,” she told me. The office is decorated with Hanukkah decorations (“It just happened,” she explained. “Nobody brought in any Christmas decorations.”) and they play an ultra-competitve, booze-enhanced game of dreidel, with colleagues gambling everything from traditional gelt to office items like staplers and IDs.
“It kind of shows you who’s really competitive,” Sappok-Klink said. “It’s really about coming together.”
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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Lisa Keys is a New York City-based writer and editor.
Lisa Keys is a New York City-based writer and editor.