We are pleased to publish this reflection on the convergence of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah by Ruth Nemzoff. She shared her observations with us after reading about our work through the intense news coverage of Susan Katz Miller’s new book, Being Both.
Dr. Nemzoff is a member of the advisory board of InterfaithFamily.com. She is the author of Don’t Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with Your Adult Children (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2008) and Don’t Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws Into Family (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2012)
Thanksgivukkah by Dr. Ruth Nemzoff,
Thanksgivukkah is all the rage. It is the amazing confluence of Chanukah and Thanksgiving. Due to the lunar calendar, which mark Jewish holidays, these two celebrations have not been on the same day since 1888. Manischewitz is promoting their products with it, Websites are blooming, articles abound. One only needs curiosity and a computer to find lots of information.
For Jewish families combining Chanukah and Thanksgiving is terrific, a chance to celebrate a secular holiday and a chance to educate their children about a historic event. They are thrilled with the chance to share their traditions as a family, since usually the holiday falls in December when the kids are back in school and grandparents are “over the hill and through the woods,” or more likely a couple of airports away.
For interfaith families, however, when there is both a Christian and Jewish spouse and the children are being raised Christian, the Christian side of the family may see Chanukah as a religious holiday, one that has no place in a home with no Jews or with kids who are not being brought up in the Jewish religion.
In these intermarried families, tensions may be rising. The Christian parents or grandparents may fear that lighting the candles is tantamount to conversion or at least pressure in that direction. While the Jewish grandparents are conjuring memories of Chanukah past and madly shopping for gifts, the Christian relatives who have never celebrated Chanukah wonder what they are getting themselves into.
Focusing on the universal themes of Chanukah allows interfaith families to focus on their commonalities. Chanukah is the celebration of a historic event. It celebrates a small band of Maccabees (guerrilla fighters) who overcame the Romans and allowed the Jews to reclaim their Temple in Jerusalem as well as their right to worship as they wished. Christians, too, were persecuted by the Romans for their religious beliefs. We can both celebrate this victory over religious persecution. The holiday gives us all a chance to contemplate how the belief in the rightness of our own ideas can infringe on the notions of others. It also gives us a chance to celebrate our freedom to choose.
The ceremony itself it quite simple and nothing to fear. One lights the helper or shamash candle, and then uses it to light a new candle for each of the eight nights of the holiday. The holiday is celebrated for eight days to commemorate the miracle that when the Jews reentered the destroyed Temple they found only a tiny bit of oil. It, however, lasted eight days until a new supply could arrive. This oil is important as both a symbol of knowledge and respect and more practically to light the ark of the Torah. Christmas and Chanukah both are celebrations of light, as the days get darker and darker. In fact, it is this celebration of light which is the only common theme in the two winter holidays. The candles also symbolize the great miracle that happened of “right winning over might.” A few short prayers are said expressing thanks for commanding us to kindle these lights and for allowing this miracle. The sentiment of praise for the unexplainable and wondrous bounty is similar in both Chanukah and Thanksgiving.
The Chanukah celebration can add to any Thanksgiving celebration by giving families a chance to discuss the complexities of religious freedom and the tension between minority rights and majority rule. It is also a chance to bring yet another historical perspective into a holiday which can easily descend into a Roman orgy of overeating.
Thanksgivukkah gives us the opportunity to enrich our Thanksgiving dinners with more than just cholesterol.