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On Not Decorating Shrubbery This Time of Year

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The Hanukkah story as I know it, growing up as an atheistic Jewish kid in a primarily Catholic Rhode Island suburb: The other kids are decorating the class Christmas tree, singing their festive songs, eating their cheerfully-decorated cookies and, most alluringly, planning for their 10,000 presents-to-come.

The two other Jewish kids in class and I, none of us talented artists, are making a sad and floppy menorah out of brown and yellow colored paper.

Hanukkah is a relatively minor holiday, religiously-speaking. Its chief significance seems to be that it provides a sort of Jewish alternative to Christmas. (This excellent New York Times op-ed has more on that.)

And, indeed, while the other kids' families will spend themselves silly every December, my parents give me and my brother eight presents over the eight nights of our Festival of Lights. One of these will be a big, Christmas-style indulgence. The other seven gifts are ordinarily things like socks.

Hanukkah food is usually thought of as one of the holiday's selling points. Potato latkes -- fried potato pancakes, that my non-Jewish now-husband describes as being "very much like hash browns" -- are delicious. But that's more or less it for Hanukkah food. We've got the gold foil-wrapped chocolate coins that we use to play the game of dreidel. But, truth is, dreidel is a boring game, and the foil-wrapped chocolate coins are nearly inedible.

And, finally, we lack a delicious-smelling tree, decorated with lights and candy and family heirlooms. We will instead celebrate with a sacred candelabra that threatens to burn down the house, should it be left unwatched for even a moment. (Google "unattended menorah" sometime then talk to me about holiday anxiety.)

One year I asked my parents if we could get a "Hanukkah bush."

hanukkah bush "Jews don't decorate shrubbery," was my mom's unhappy answer.

It was as if I'd suggested that this year for Hanukkah, we should try erecting a shrine to a portly man in a red suit in the living room (he'd wear a yarmulke, of course, so we know that this isn't a Christmas decoration).

Or, worse, that we celebrate by putting up a tinsel-covered statue of Zeus -- because this Greek god figures into the religious part of the Hanukkah story. The short version goes like this, in the words of a pair of HuffPost bloggers:

The story of Hanukkah chronicles the four-year war which took place between 167 B.C.E.-163 B.C.E. as oppressed Jews struggled under the rule of Antiochus IV of the Syrian-Greeks. Jews were forbidden to follow their ritual observances and pagan worship was introduced into their sacred Temple. It is also about a civil war between those Jews who aligned themselves with the Greek-Syrian ways and the Maccabees, a small group of Jews who resisted such assimilation. The holiday culminates in the re-taking and rededicating of the Temple in Jerusalem and re-lighting the seven-branched candelabra that was supposed to always remain lit.

It's thought that this "pagan worship" included a statue of and/or altar to Zeus, placed in the Second Temple of Jerusalem. And this short version of the story leaves out the part where a Maccabee starts the revolt by killing an assimilated Jew.

I believe there's some allegory here that my mom would appreciate about how allowing things like decorated shrubbery into the home will eventually lead to celebrating another culture's holidays to the loss of Jewish identity altogether. (And maybe to revolt.)

As I mentioned, I'm married to a non-Jew now, which could be an even shorter step toward losing my identity as a secular, cultural Jew. Except that I still love our religiously minor, flame-filled holiday. Maybe it's precious to me especially because of its relative asceticism. Because we have to work so hard to resist the lure of piles and piles of presents underneath good-smelling, prettily-trimmed trees, having been delivered there by that magical fat man who's always watching you, always.

And luckily, while I still have mixed feelings toward Christmas -- I have a great time celebrating with my husband's family, but still can't quite shake the feeling that I'm going to be overtaken by Maccabees -- my husband isn't immune to Hanukkah's prickly charms. This past weekend, he spent his whole Sunday grating potatoes and onions, and frying them into latkes as good as any I've had before. Together, we've been lighting the menorah, watching it closely to make sure the cat won't knock it into a bookcase. My husband even leads games of dreidel that are as exciting as that game can be. He does not complain about the sub-par chocolate.

We don't do gifts every night. But on the first night of Hanukkah this year, we exchanged presents. He bought me a pair of beautiful new shoes. And, because it's what he asked for, I got him some socks.

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