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Parshas Mikeitz (5773)

The December Dilemma

For many Jewish parents, the "holiday season" can be an extremely frustrating time of year. It is often called “The December Dilemma”. Our kids are surrounded by all the beautiful lights and decorations of the season, and they often come home asking us, "Why don't we have a tree like the neighbors do, or like the great big one they have at the mall?", or, "Christmas is just so much fun! Why don't we celebrate it?" What should we answer them: "Here's a potato latke, now be quiet!"? How do we respond to our children when they feel like they were "ripped off" by not being able to participate in the "Santa thang" or other "holiday activities", just because they are "Jewish"?

Many years ago I was tuning in to a segment of the “Dr. Laura” show (remember her?), in which a concerned Jewish mother called to complain that her child was being taught by her Public School teacher about Christmas, but not a word was mentioned about Chanukah. To which Dr. Laura responded by asking this woman why we Jews celebrate Chanukah. The woman answered in a way that showed that she obviously knew precious little herself about this holiday. Dr. Laura then pointed out to her the foolishness of her initial complaint about the school teacher: How can you expect a secular Christian teacher to explain to your Jewish child the holiday of Chanukah, when you yourself don't know the reason why we celebrate it!

And then she added a very important point. She said, "The way Christmas is taught in the Public Schools is from a purely secular perspective, as is appropriate for a non-parochial school. Chanukah, on the other hand, is not a secular holiday. There is nothing secular about it at all. It celebrates the battle that the Jewish Maccabees fought against their oppressors to be able to practice their own religion. And, as such, should not be taught in the Public Schools. If we want our children to learn the meaning of Jewish holidays such as Chanukah, we should send them to Jewish day schools. Or, at the very least, we should invest the time to study what Chanukah is all about so that we can teach it to our children."

I think that Dr. Menorah …er, I mean Dr. Laura … really has a point there. When our children start asking us questions about Christmas, we have to be prepared to teach them about the wonderful holiday of Chanukah that we Jews have been celebrating long before Kris Kringle started sliding down chimneys! We have to be educated about Chanukah and its attendant lessons. And there is no better time to start teaching ourselves and our kids about what it means to be Jewish than on the holiday of Chanukah. Even the name Chanukah comes from the Hebrew word chinuch, which means “education”!

But if all we do in response to our kids' questions about Chanukah is to get a "Chanukah bush" from Target and to place under it lots of gifts wrapped in that dull-looking Chanukah wrapping paper they sell at most Judaica stores - then the message we send our children is very clear: "You are right, kids. Our own religion is boring. But let's do Christmas Jewish-style. Let's put a yarmulke on Santa and we're ready to roll!"

Don't get me wrong! I'm not advocating, G-d forbid, that we shouldn't buy our children toys for Chanukah to make them very happy during the holiday. Heck, I bought my kids so many toys, Toys'R'Us stock went up! Of course our kids need all the "trimmings" that come with the Jewish holidays.

What I am saying is that for our kids to really feel proud of the religion they have, and not just to feel like they are playing “catch up” with Christianity, we have to educate them as to what Chanukah and the other special holidays are about.

For starters, we can discuss with our kids why the miracle of Chanukah occurred with olive oil, of all things. The symbolism of olive oil is beautiful and is a great springboard for teaching our kids a little Jewish history (something, I might add, that most Jewish kids - and adults - don't have a clue about!). The commentators explain that just like olives are beaten and smashed - and just when you think they are totally gone - what do they do? They produce olive oil which, when burned, produces a beautiful light! So, too, is the story of our people. We have been beaten and smashed many times - but we have come back stronger than ever! And we're not going to fade away anytime soon, either!

This is just one of the many important ideas which are hidden beneath the surface of this very Jewish, very not secular, Chanukah holiday. And I know that the more we impress upon our children that, as Jews, we have a religion to be truly proud of, the less often we will hear our kids complain about not celebrating Christmas.

[One book that I recommend for Chanukah as an excellent teaching tool for our kids is Chanukah: Eight Nights of Light, Eight Gifts for the Soul by Shimon Apisdorf, published by Leviathan Press, and available at your local Jewish bookstore.]


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