Hanukkah is a dumb holiday, and it’s my favorite.
I grew up with a weird amalgam of Jewish influences: an early childhood of high-style Reform Judaism gave way to my parents’ increasing devotion to the Chabad Lubavitch brand of Chassidic Orthodox Judaism, while I spent my summers at the Conservative Jewish Camp Arazim and attended the nominally Orthodox, highly disorganized and very Russian Hebrew Academy of San Francisco from third through eighth grade. My Judaism was pulled in different directions. I loved the high-church elegance of Reform, but it was pretty square, and I suspect I would have found it boring had I stuck with it into my adolescence. Orthodox Judaism, and especially Chabad, was full of baffling rules and boring prayer and eternal Saturdays full of Monopoly games and quietly setting fire to things while waiting for the sun to go down, but it offered periodic bursts of completely batshit alcohol-fueled celebration from which teenagers were by no means excluded. (The Hamantashen Riot of ’87, at a shul in San Francisco, became something of a legend.) And Conservative Judaism, sitting somewhere in the middle, was too chummy and too Zionist, but its passion for teaching young Jews to hook up with other young Jews was pretty compelling that summer I turned 16.
Today my connection to Judaism as a religion is pretty tenuous, and mostly it involves family: I go to shul when I visit my parents or my brother, who’s studying to be a rabbi, or I go to holy sites in Israel with my sister, or I go to the Passover seder out on Long Island with cousins. There’s not much that I do on my own. But I do Hanukkah.
Hanukkah is a dumb holiday because it celebrates the victory of a short-lived fundamentalist movement over the forces of tolerance, and it’s a dumb holiday because the attention it receives in America today is a product of American Jews’ desire for something to compete with Christmas. If you’re a Christian, the birth of Jesus is pretty important. If you’re a Jew, the victory of the Maccabees over the Assyrian Greeks is pretty low on the list of important things. It’s like a holiday celebrating the Battle of Manila or something.
Hanukkah is maybe the only part of Judaism that bridges the different parts of my Jewish experience. I loved it when I was little, when we would light the menorahs in the high windows of our formal living room that faced out to the street, and then sit in the part of the house we saved for special occasions and unwrap presents. Presents are excellent. Anticipating another one tomorrow is excellent. Getting the biggest Space Lego set of the year is beyond excellent. Gold-wrapped chocolate is OK too, not great, but who’s gonna complain about chocolate? Dreidel is a stupid game, but that’s OK because no one actually plays it. Hanukkah music is terrible, but who listens to Hanukkah music? We listened to my parents’ psychedelic rock records from the sixties. Latkes are great and we probably had them, I don’t know; I was busy with the Legos.
As my family became more Orthodox, holidays that had once been breezy and fun, like Passover or Purim or Simchas Torah, began to involve long compulsory prayer sessions and elaborate rules and restrictions. But that never happened to Hanukkah. Hanukkah was still about candles and presents, without much in the way of additional prayer time. And the new rules made Hanukkah better, because it meant we now set fire to olive oil instead of candles, and playing with fire is always improved by added complexity and liquid fuel. Even the Chabad menorah lightings in San Francisco’s Union Square managed to add to the awesome: they were trips to the city, at night, and one year Carlos Santana played.
There have been years when I missed Hanukkah. I didn’t light the candles when I was in India, and I don’t remember lighting them when I lived in Korea either. But I’ve lit candles in all my different homes in New York City over the years, and with my family in Playa del Carmen (where dueling Chabads have dueling menorah lightings). I lit candles tonight, in the window, in a kosher menorah, and I’ll keep lighting the candles through the end of the holiday, which I get to finish out this year with my family in Arizona. And next year, when I’m off somewhere in Southeast Asia, maybe I’ll drop in on a Chabad House or find some Israelis and do Hanukkah there too. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my world travels, it’s that you can find sufganiyot anywhere.