Jewish World Review Dec. 14, 1998 / 25 Kislev, 5759

Teaching the real
meaning of Chanukah

One of the strongest messages we can teach our children
about Chanukah is their right not to assimilate.

By Seena Bulmash

THE MEANING OF CHANUKAH has become increasingly distorted through current day social pressures. Many Jewish parents want to return to a non-commercial, uncomplicated celebration of the holiday, but feel more parental anxiety than joy when searching for a way to escape the seasonal madness.

Two weeks ago, while waiting for a flight at the airport, I began reading a cover story in USA Today on toy spending. The article quotes toy manufacturers who boast about an anticipated record number of parents and grandparents who will spend $100 or more on individual holiday gifts. Each year retailers increasingly prepare for the shoppers who will fight their way into malls to purchase extravagant gifts that are believed to be expressions of love.

What is more concerning than the amount of money parents and grandparents will spend on children's gifts, is the modern-day justification for doing so. The USA Today writer interviewed and quoted working parents who feel that inadequate quality time with children could be replaced with lavish gifts. Grandparents who were interviewed and quoted in the same article felt that sending outrageously expensive gifts to their grandchildren could compensate for long-distance visits. It is not surprising that children become increasingly materialistic when adults give the message that love can be bought.

Pressure for greater material spending is not all that distorts the meaning of Chanukah, as there is the growing misconception by Jews and non-Jews alike that Chanukah can become secularized and nationalized. While waiting in my children's doctor's office I began to read an article in this month's Good Housekeeping, in which a Jewish author glorifies her successful integration of non-Jewish customs into her home. This type of holiday coverage is becoming more prevalent each year in print and on television to appease readers and viewers who want to believe that we can step away from religious holiday ties to meld together cultural and ethnic customs and practices.

If Jewish adults are vulnerable to the thinking that Chanukah involves indulging in extravagant gift buying and that non-Jewish practices could possibly be incorporatd in Jewish homes, than how do young children handle facing all of today's common holiday distortions?

Children today will hear that friends received expensive and extravagant holiday gifts, and might complain and question if they were not equally indulged. Jewish children will befriend neighbors and schoolmates who will say with confusion or with a degree of certainty that they celebrate Chanukah and Christmas.

Five years ago, when my son attended public school kindergarten, there were just as many children from homes where there was one Christian parent and one Jewish parent, as there were homes with two Jewish parents. One little boy in the kindergarten who had just arrived in the United States from Taiwan concluded, after hearing classmates talk, that religions and holidays could be mixed and matched. Therefore, he decided he wanted to be both Chinese and Jewish.

As Jews, we can sympathize with the difficulties families with mixed religious backgrounds face. We can understand that non-Jews mean well by trying to include Chanukah as a national American celebration through displaying dreidl and menorah decorations in the mall and by adding a token Chanukah song to public holiday choir appearances. We cannot, however, allow for dilution and distortion of our Jewish faith and practices to make others feel more at ease or comfortable.

One of the strongest messages we can teach our children about Chanukah is the importance of the right not to assimilate.

As Jewish parents, we cannot run away or shield our children from the reality of being inundated at this time of year. We would have to avoid going to malls and other public places like hotels and restaurants in the month of December, November and October as retailers are setting up holiday promotions earlier and earlier. Ironically, however, we can use the increasing complexities we face this time of year to teach our children about a deeper meaning of Chanukah.

As a professional Jewish educator and as a parent of school-age children I recommend:

If we communicate and demonstrate a deep love for our faith and heritage, then their feeling for and attachment to Judaism will certainly grow.

New JWR contributor Seena Bulmash, M. Ed., is director of
the Joan E. Bobrow Early Childhood Center in Potomac, Maryland.


©1998 Seena Bulmash