Hanukkah festivities grow to match Christmas spectacles
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Each year, Rabbi Areyah Kaltmann tries to top himself with a Hanukkah celebration for the community that is more fun and exciting than the previous year’s event.
Last year was the first that Kaltmann hired a helicopter to drop dreidels and candy from the sky for children. This year, the dreidel drop will return, but with a twist: a few golden tickets also will fall from the sky, in a nod to “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” And his daughter helped plan a dance battle between hip-hop dancers and Hasidic Jews.
“We just want to make Judaism exciting; we want Judaism to be relevant,” said Kaltmann, executive director of the Lori Schottenstein Chabad Center in New Albany, Ohio. “We try to improve everything we do … so kids feel like they belong.”
Kaltman added that the center doesn’t want Jewish children to feel like, “‘Hey, why don’t I have anything special for the holiday season?’ The idea is to ignite just a spark of hope, a ray of light and goodness.”
Public celebrations such as those that Kaltmann hosts and the presence of a Hanukkah menorah at a Columbus Blue Jackets game, the Columbus Zoo’s Wild Lights and the Statehouse weren’t always as prevalent as they are today.
Cultural shift: In the early to mid-19th century, Judaism wasn’t openly practiced or publicized in the United States. But in recent years, the Hanukkah story of Jews triumphing over the majority religion by refusing to worship Greek gods in ancient Israel more than 2,000 years ago has become cause for public celebration.
An eight-day celebration, Hanukkah means “dedication” in Hebrew and commemorates when the Jews rededicated the Second Temple in Jerusalem during the second century B.C. A one-day supply of untainted olive oil used to light their menorah miraculously kept it flickering for eight days.
For most of the 20th century, Hanukkah was a holiday largely celebrated privately, in homes with family members. But in the past few decades, synagogues have begun hosting parties for their members and, along with others, putting on public menorah lightings in November and December, when the holiday usually falls.
Going public: Chabad organizations, like the one Kaltmann leads, were the first to bring Jewish celebrations of Hanukkah out of the home and into the public square, said Jonathan Sarna, an American Jewish history professor at Brandeis University in Massachusetts.
At first, many Jews weren’t fans of publicizing the holiday or Judaism, as they believed in the separation of church and state, Sarna said. However, the Chabad organization triumphed, and soon people forgot about the opposition, he said.
“It’s really becoming more of a public celebration” said Rabbi Rick Kellner of Congregation Beth Tikvah in Worthington. “It’s really a joy-filled holiday. … It teaches a wonderful lesson about religious freedom and how we always have to work to maintain our freedom, especially in recent years, in light of the increase of anti-Semitic attacks.”
Hanukkah is still considered a minor holiday in Judaism, Kellner said, even though there’s more awareness of it among non-Jews because of its proximity to Christmas.
Some call this the “Americanization” or “magnification” of Hanukkah, but to Rabbi Alex Braver of Congregation Tifereth Israel, it’s an idea that goes back to the Talmud, an ancient Jewish religious text that says Hanukkah should be publicized.
“It’s taken on a very American flavor,” Braver said.
That might be because, in the past, Christians uniting around Christmas made Jews feel like outsiders, said Dianne Ashton, a religion studies professor at Rowan University in New Jersey and the author of “Hanukkah in America.”
Inclusivity: So Hanukkah, which falls in the winter, as Christmas does, became important for Jewish families to celebrate with their children, she added.
“I think what’s happened over the last 40 years or so, is, as we’ve become more conscious of being inclusive as a country, people are both asking Jews to do something publicly for Hanukkah, and also Jews want people to understand this holiday that’s not Christmas,” Ashton said.
Celebrating Hanukkah so openly has become a triumph of sorts for Jews, Ashton said. “I think it’s helped to further a sense of diversity in the country and is making diversity less threatening,” she said.
It’s important, Sarna said, especially in light of the noticeable rise in anti-Semitism.
“I hope Jews will continue to celebrate in the public square and they won’t let what is a small but dangerous percentage of haters dampen what has become a celebration of a Jewish holiday that has some of the same outward characteristics of its Christian counterpart,” he said.
Those same characteristics, Sarna added, allow Christians and Jews to celebrate the season together — instead of in competition with one another.
Kaltmann hasn’t allowed anything to dampen the celebrations that he and his synagogue plan.
“You can’t wait for people to walk through your doors; you have to bring it to where they’re comfortable,” Kaltmann said.
“We have to be proud and bring the theme and universal message of Hanukkah to the world.”
Hanukkah lasts through Dec. 30.