This year, for the first time ever, Hanukka overlaps with Thanksgiving. Don’t get used to it; it won’t happen again for over 70,000 years (yes, that number is correct).
“Thanksgivukka” websites are proliferating, so I leave it to the chefs and comedians to explore the joys and perils of eating stuffing and latkes on the same day. I want to focus on what happens later — when Hanukka is over.
The last day of the holiday is Dec. 5, which means the “Christmas season” will just be getting up to full speed when we Jews put our dreidls and hanukkiot back in storage for another year. This will give us a unique opportunity to engage in tzimtzum, the practice, based on Jewish mysticism, of making ourselves smaller so there is room for other people and other ideas.
We live in the metropolitan New York area, which is considered “very Jewish.” But “very Jewish” is deceiving: The highest estimate of the Jewish population in New York State is 9 percent, and less than 6 percent in New Jersey. That means that more than 90 percent of my neighbors are not Jewish. In the United States as a whole, 98 percent are not Jewish, and recent population surveys say that 77 percent of Americans identify themselves as Christian.
With these numbers in mind, it is important for Jews to see ourselves for what we are: a tiny minority living in a land that has given us the gift of complete freedom and equality. We are not simply “tolerated” here, nor are we protected by some benevolent ruler; we are citizens who need not apologize for or hide our Jewish identities. If we consider the history of the world, that is quite amazing. And it is something to celebrate.
So what should we Jews ask for during the Christmas part of the “Christmas season” — the part that goes from Dec. 6 through the end of the year? Nothing. In fact, we should demand nothing, which will be quite a shock to some people, Jewish and not.
Personally, I don’t want to hear “Happy holidays!” on Dec. 20, because it is not a holiday for me. Hanukka isn’t the Jewish Christmas, and as we see this year, sometimes it doesn’t even happen at the same time. By Dec. 20 Hanukka will have been over for more than two weeks, and the approaching holiday is Christmas. And only Christmas.
I know retailers in many parts of the country have instructed their employees to say “Happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” and I’m not going to try to re-educate them. But when people say “Merry Christmas” to me this December, I am going to respond in the proper, Jewish way: “Thank you, and the same to you!” I will not be insulted, I will not feel slighted, and I will not feel discriminated against. It’s Christmastime.
There are times when we Jews have to stand up for our rights. We do it and we teach our children to do it. But there are also times for tzimtzum, for letting go of issues that aren’t a threat to us or to anyone. This year’s “Thanksgivukkah” and the weeks that follow it will present us with one of those times, and I hope we use it to take a breath, take a step back, and enjoy the blessing of Jewish life in the United States.