I admit that I was the Chanukah “one-present-every-night-and-a-really-big-one-on-the-last-night kinda mom when my kids were growing up. That was the family tradition in which I was raised, along with numerous tinselly type window decorations and a huge “Happy Hanukkah” banner across the front door. It made me proud to be so visibly Jewish at the most otherwise-invisible time of year. I felt “one of the crowd” with my peers and friends, even the Jewish ones. It was joyous, festive, and somewhat Christmasy, to be honest. My mom tried really hard to compete with the secular culture around us, and most years she won. I have very fond memories of those years, and Chanukah with my own kids was always something of a treat even if we didn’t go “all the way.” And while I am generally a Christmas Scrooge (I go grocery shopping with headphones on, listening to Israeli music so I don’t get jingle-belled into oblivion) I never really minded if the “holiday spirit” started creeping into Chanukah.
So imagine my surprise when Chanukah came and went in Jerusalem without any hoopla at all. It was so understated that one could practically have missed it. “That was Chanukah??” my kids asked at the end of the eighth day. I mean, Yom Kippur was so quiet you could hear a pin drop even in the secular neighborhoods; Sukkot was a major deal with kiosks full of decorations, instant pop-up Sukkah marts on every corner, and public Sukkot at every restaurant. Even Rosh Chodesh gets its own “Have a good month” banners in restaurants and special services in shul. I did notice the electric menorahs on every lamppost on King David Street, the buses which flashed “Chanukah Sameach” on their front panels, and the glass-covered Chanukiot outside people’s homes. (First prize goes to the house that made its outdoor Chanukiah out of 8 recycled beer bottles and a Scotch bottle shamash hanging on a tree.) We went to lots of latke dinners. We heard Handel’s Judas Maccabeus in the Jerusalem Theatre. (That same concert also featured Handel’s Messiah. Go figure.) But there were very few Chanukiot in store windows—except those for sale— very little Chanukah music on the Israeli radio, and nobody buys anybody presents except for really little tzatchkes for really little kids. When I went to a local store and ordered something for my 20 year old son, she asked me when I needed to pick it up. I said “In time for Chanukah of course” and she looked at me as if she didn’t get it at all and I was nuts. It was, to be honest, weird to have Chanukah be “just” Chanukah, exactly the way we Rabbis talk about it every year in the Chanukah-isn’t-Christmas fight. In Jerusalem its really “just” Chanukah like we keep insisting it should be. Liberating, but a little lame. I have to confess: I missed the hoopla.
Does it have to be all or nothing? It’s like Israel has gone the other way: since we don’t have Christmas (except in the Old City) let’s not have Chanukah either? Because “they” (the Anglo North Americans, the Russians, the foreign Thai workers) have a Christmas-Chanukah confusion, and they still celebrate their “New Year's Eves” which we know aren’t the real thing, (and which are shunned by the kosher hotels for fear of losing their kashrut licenses) let's not confuse them by making Chanukah a big deal? Even Tu B’shvat gets more press here. So the kids get their “winter break” at Chanukah and everyone goes to Eilat where you can light the Chanukiah in the hotel lobby. Maybe what we needed was some snow to get in the mood.
I don’t know, but now that the darkness of December has passed, I’m waiting for Tu B’shvat for some fun.