Dec. 10, 2004
7 Days: Merry Chanukah

By URIEL HEILMAN
NEW YORK

To the casual visitor, New York this week might seem like the perfect picture of a Jewish city.

Menorahs festoon nearly every office and apartment-complex lobby, local TV stations broadcast countless wishes for a happy Chanukah and the city's political elite are busy rushing from one menorah-lighting ceremony to the next.

On Tuesday, Sen. Hillary Clinton and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg were in Brooklyn for the lighting of the first night's candle and to celebrate the opening of the city's new Jewish Children's Museum. Across the river, in Manhattan, a group of dignitaries gathered at Ground Zero, the site of the fallen World Trade Center, to light another massive menorah.

Everybody from President George W. Bush to the Korean owners of Manhattan bodegas seem to be marking the holiday. On Thursday night, the president hosted a Chanukah party at the White House, while in Jewish neighborhoods of Manhattan, even Korean grocers put electric menorahs in their windows, dutifully turning the bulbs each night to mark the right days.

Observing all the hoopla on the first night of the holiday, one Lubavitcher hasid pointed out that one could interpret the universal celebration as the true fulfillment of pirsumei nissa-publicizing the miracle of Chanukah.

Indeed, it was quite possible that non-Jewish politicians in New York attended more menorah lightings than most Jews did during the first nights of the holiday. Last year, then-presidential candidate Howard Dean, whose wife and children are Jewish, lit Chanukah candles on a campaign stop in New Hampshire, where he insisted on saying the Shehechiyanu blessing even though it wasn't the first night because, as he explained, he really liked the blessing.

Others, however, say the universal celebration of Chanukah has turned what once was a uniquely Jewish festival into a watered-down American hybrid holiday. It is the homogenization of a holiday that has become inextricably fused with Christmas and become part of an American "holiday season" that celebrates commercialism more than anything else.

Indeed, one would be hard-pressed to find a gentile (or even an American Jew) who actually could explain the story behind Chanukah. All everyone knows is that Chanukah and Christmas both mean gifts and lights-whether on a tree or in a candelabra.

It perhaps is a sign of nothing more than marketing savvy that Chanukah and Christmas have become seemingly endless all-encompassing seasonal celebrations. This year, Christmas-themed TV commercials started as far back as October, and the day after Thanksgiving, at the end of November, now marks the first official shopping day of the Christmas season. That Friday morning, shoppers lined up as early as midnight at stores that would open at 6 A.M. to get a head start on holiday sales. Americans seem to show more religious fervor for consumerism than they do for attending midnight mass on Christmas eve or reciting the Chanukah blessings.

Meanwhile, the signs that Chanukah and Christmas have been lumped into a single, nondescript "holiday season" seem to be everywhere, particularly as government-sponsored holiday celebrations-such as public-school plays, city hall displays and holiday parades-increasingly are purged of religious content by those who see publicly sponsored religious celebrations as violations of the separation of church and state.

In popular culture, too, Chanukah has merged with Christmas. Several years ago, "Saturday Night Live" introduced Hanukkah Harry as the Jewish version of Santa Claus. This year, the Virgin mobile phone company advertised its latest line of phones as "the best Chrismahanukwanzakah gift ever," adding the increasingly popular African festival of lights, Kwanzaa.

Of course, it's not like this everywhere in America. There are some places where Christmas is about church and Jesus Christ, and where Chanukah is about tradition (though they're generally not in the same places). And there are plenty parts of America where Chanukah is not celebrated at all.

But its pervasiveness on TV, the most powerful communal medium of our time, means that Chanukah is broadcast into nearly every American home.

Perhaps that's why Chanukah feels more American than ever.