I love you, but I hate your cultural representation. I don't blame you. I know that your calendar slot dooms your loveliness. Consequently, many don't dig deeper than asinine arguments about songs or comparisons to Christmas and impoverished representations on TV. Dreidels! Gelt! Menorahs! Cool! Hanukkah on "Gossip Girl." Even cooler! A Christmas-Hanukkah bush. Even super duper more cooler! I know, this treatment pains me too. I don't know why I feel so protective of your days-all eight of them. I just want to let them breathe, unfettered, without resorting to kitschy rewrites of bad songs, or to leeching off Christmas. I think these sad attempts to respect your importance speak to a cultural vacuum in which we desire to respect you, but feel overwhelmed by the hurdles you present.
Sorry, Hanukkah, but a relationship demands honesty. You lack ceremonies, besides the lighting of the menorah, to work with. (No drunken revelry, no meals at all! What kind of Jewish holiday doesn't have a meal?) Moreover, a victory for religious freedom feels hard to connect to in a time of unprecedented religious autonomy. Complacency engenders forgetfulness and, ultimately, apathy. The biggest hurdle, perhaps, is that you signify a victory against assimilation, a value that many embrace, or at least feel ambivalent about. You tend to make people uncomfortable, forcing them to confront their Jewish identity and their own views on assimilation. Can you then blame those who cling to you through banal pop culture?
So how do we redeem you, Hanukkah, from the pits of superficiality hell, from years of cultural PR devastation? Our first step toward rejuvenation demands an immediate cessation of all things cheesy. Please, I think you and I can agree, no more parody songs. Look, I know many find them fun, but they do greater harm than good. They focus on simplistic messages told through a cliched medium. Finally, a Hanukkah song to rival Christmas! We did it, Jews! We've made it! Two thousand years of fighting for our freedom so we can compete on YouTube. Awesome!!!!
Next, we need to realize that some people will write inane, scathing criticisms of Hanukkah as a vapid, dumb, one-armed relative of that perfect specimen Christmas. But like all childish tantrums we will ignore them. (Looking at you, Howard Jacobson. A New York Times op-ed on your shallow experiences of Hanukkah? Come on New York Times, try harder. True, Jacobson won the Man-Booker award that year, but that doesn't justify a puerile piece.) Others, responding to this mess, will capitalize on the opportunity and try to make you about something. They will talk of your true meaning likely through the lens of their own agenda and ideology. You fit with numerous themes: family, peace, charity; or freedom, the power of a minority, the environment and, of course, the importance of adding light to a suffocating darkness. These aren't wrong, just prosaic. Too many assume that the onus rests upon you to inspire us with an emotional punch. They fail to realize the extent that preparation for an experience correlates to our ability to feel, immensely, that experience. They don't understand you like I do; your need for freedom.
Here's my plan, which I hope provides a foundation for a mature relationship: I will let you talk. I will devote some time just for us to reconnect, reveling in the memories of our shared past: of staring at your lights, seeing my wishes in your flames, feeling a rare intimate warmth as my family stood around your heat, the tinfoil taped to our makeshift table. Watching your colorful candles melt into mysterious shapes, signs from a different realm. Standing there, transfixed by holy fire. Eating delicious crispy, crunchy, golden brown latkes with apple sauce, feeling the excitement of counting the days until my house would contain a choir of 36 dancing candles. Walking around my darkened, hushed neighborhood, searching for other menorahs.
I will light your candles and sing the traditional songs (Why does "Ma'oz Tzur" get such bad press? It's gorgeous, musically and lyrically) and let your beauty wash over my mind. We can both use this time for introspection. I will again stare at your fire in the hopes that you can pass some along, rekindle something dormant in me, desperate for resuscitation.
Alternatively, I will bring my friends over to converse about your complexities, your singularity. One night I will sit with you and drink scotch while I think through your classical themes. Perhaps open the Talmud, Tractate Sabbath (where your laws are located -- though even the rabbis denied you your own independent space in the Talmud) read your books of apocrypha and Josephus's account. Just me and you, Hanukkah. Like old times. Look, to be honest, old friend, I don't have simple answers. But who can say no to eight chances at redemption? It will be great, or at least a great start. You'll see.
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