Thursday, December 02, 2010


Among my pet peeves is the common American greeting, “Happy holidays!” The intent is to offend no one—which, at this season of the year, means the Jews. But the expression reveals an abysmal stupidity about those who are to be spared any offense.

For the Jews, the “holidays” occur in the fall, at the beginning of the Jewish year: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot. During that season, religious Jews greet one another by saying “Hag sameyah!”—that is, “Happy holiday.”

Hanukkah, which began last night, is not a hag, it is not a holiday, in the same sense of the word. It certainly does not measure up to Christmas. It might be described as a second-rate Sukkot, an eight-day celebration inserted into the calendar by Jews who were not always permitted to observe their highest holidays at the proper time of year.

The word hanukkah means “rededication,” and the holiday commemorates the rededication of the Temple upon the retaking of Jerusalem by Judah the Maccabee in 165 BCE. Yesterday, during the Hanukkah program at my son’s preschool, a teacher tried to explain the significance of the rededication by comparing it to the rebuilding of a synagogue. Perhaps the comparison serves to instruct preschoolers, but it is all wrong.

In Jewish life today, the Temple has been moved to the home. The Sabbath dinner table is explicitly compared to the altar, and the Sabbath bread, the hallah, is treated as if it were a Temple sacrifice. Hanukkah, then, might more appropriately lead to a rededication of the home, although no one I know celebrates it in this fashion.

In Israel, the military aspects of the holiday are emphasized. Hanukkah represents the underdog’s triumph over a hostile alien force that would desecrate the Temple site, looting it for alien worship and seeking to obliterate all traces of Jewish history there. At this season, Israelis rededicate themselves to a defense of Jerusalem at all costs. This is a meaning that I can enter into as eagerly as any other Zionist, but it is not the American meaning of the holiday.

In America, Hanukkah has become the Jewish answer to Christmas. Among religious Jews, this is harmless enough. The secular practice of gift-giving has enough to recommend it without an additional religious dimension. Among non-religious Jews, though, Hanukkah becomes one of the few remaining Jewish rites. And then its secular qualities are redolent of the abandonment of the Jewish religion.

But the holiday has another spiritual dimension, among religious and secular Jews alike, which lifts Hanukkah above its relatively ordinary status in Judaism. Precisely because it is the Jewish Christmas, it is the holiday that enables American Jews to participate in the American civic religion. It is, from this angle, a celebration of American Jews’ extraordinary religious freedom.

Not just “Happy Hanukkah,” then, but “Happy holidays” indeed—the glittering American holiday that stretches from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day. During this season, Jews are greeted warmly with the reminder that they are home in America. Only a self-important prig could be peeved at such a greeting.


Jonathan said...

Dr. Meyers,

If I remember correctly, the post about your final class at A&M contained a bit where you expressed being moved by the question asked of you by a female student - something along the lines of "Can I give you a hug if you're Orthodox?".

Her concern and respect for your sensibilities, rather than the potential hug, seemed to be what you appreciated the most. And while I appreciate it must be annoying to see one's culture or religion misunderstood by the larger society, isn't it a little uncharitable to refer to it as "abysmal stupidity"? Perhaps there's a mid-point between that and well=intentioned ignorance.

That said, I found the post very informative.

It's still a little early for me, so I'll end with my usual,


D. G. Myers said...


The trouble with irony, as J. V. Cunningham once told me, is that no one may get it. You’ll notice that I began by identifying a peeve, and ended by faulting anyone with such a peeve.

Angie O'Genesis said...

My mother was Jewish and, therefore, despite my very Irish surname, so am I. And so are my six siblings. (Tho in the larger picture, I prefer to think that we are all sons and daughters of Abraham.)

We grew up in a small Midwestern town. You know you in for some lean cultural times when the Seven Little O'Reillys also do double duty at the entire Jewish population for the tri county area...

Happy Hanukkah!

(As I am only half Jewish, I only light four candles.)

D. G. Myers said...


Hate to tell you, but if your mother was Jewish, you are not “half Jewish.” (There is no such animal anyway.) You are fully Jewish. 100% kosher. Kindle those last four lights!


Patty O'Furniture said...

Just kidding!

That's my variation on Groucho Marx and the swimming pool at the restricted country club:
"Well, my son is only half-Jewish. Can he go in up to his waist?"

As you slide down the bannister of life, may all the splinters be pointing in the same direction.

Rock on,

P.S. Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read. . .

Susan Messer said...

The last line of this post, and the way it works with the opening, . . . definitely one reason to keep returning to this blog.

Sorry to discover that the Franzen review is for subscribers only. But I like the point about Cadillacs/Bush.

Rick O'Shay said...

Speaking of uniquely American, love this take on Ki Va Moed:

The time has come!

Jonathan said...

Dr. Meyers,

I noticed that, but wasn't sure if "abysmal stupidity" was part of the joke or whether you thought it the proper characterization. Looks like I should have held off on my initial comment.


D. G. Myers said...

The only stupidity, Jonathan, is mine.

Tim O'Tannenbaum said...

Can't expand upon your intellectual discourse. The above gave me a good laugh. And a good laugh is a precious gift--for anybody!

Happy Festivus!