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Thank god for chanukah

12/26/2019 10:42:15 AM


Shalom Lewis, Rabbi Emeritus

We might imagine that Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the most popular holidays because of the attendance. At no other time during the year is the sanctuary and beyond so full. No other festival comes close. Perhaps Shabbos attendance in the annual aggregate surpasses the High Holidays but for a singular sanctuary moment it’s indisputably the Big Two.  And yet there is more to these demographics than pew stats.


Who we see from the bima are only those who are in shul, presumably those Jews who are absent are not the davening, fasting, spiritual types. Perhaps a silent majority of our coreligionists. But the story is not all numerical doom and gloom.


At the other end of the spectrum we have Chanukah.  A minor holiday that is nowhere in the Bible. A holiday disparaged by our sages for a variety of reasons it was observed by our ancestors, but the eight days were certainly not eight days of awe. And then, something happened after nearly two millennia. Chanukah entered the big leagues of popularity.


When Jews came to America, the rabbis promoted Chanukah to provide a winter holiday to compete with a seductive Christmas. As a result, Chanukah today is widely observed, its candle lighters, dreidel spinners, and latke eaters out number those dipping apples in honey and thumping their hearts. But in the interest of full disclosure, it is an easy holiday to observe.


A chanukkiah, a couple of blessings and you’re done. No need to skip work or school. No need to get dressed up and go to shul. Gelt. Latkes. Dreidel. Songs. All are optional. From a humble beginning in ancient Judea, Chanukah has become a major festival. Popular. Widely celebrated from the National Menorah in D.C. to communal lightings in malls across the country to Saturday Night Live. Happy Chanukah and Merry Christmas get equal billing in America. Amazing. We pack them in Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but Chanukah has helped keep the marginalized connected to Judaism even if they’re not holding a machzor.

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Tue, April 7 2020 13 Nisan 5780