Hanukkah Heaven 

With the world going green this holiday season, we Jews take our smugness to a new level

If scientists could figure out how to make a day’s worth of oil last for eight, like it did back in the day, we wouldn’t be in this mess.

You’ll hear plenty in the media this year about how to give low-impact Christmas gifts, how to wrangle free-range turkey for your Christmas dinner and how to knit together festive sweaters from recycled scraps for your big Christmas gathering. Meanwhile, we Jews will be doing what we do every holiday season: sitting back, relaxing and feeling smug. And with this whole “green” thing, our smugness has a particularly rosy sheen—because Hanukkah is the original green holiday. If scientists could figure out how to make a day’s worth of oil last for eight, like it did back in the day, we wouldn’t be in this mess.

I always thought it was a silly myth that we members of the tribe spend the month of December in a state of perpetual green-eyed envy—which would at least fit with the mind-numbingly ubiquitous color scheme. Maybe so for a minute in our younger years. But with the rampant commercialization of Christmas turning the whole country into a garish fantasyland filled with cheesy decorations, Yule logs and stressed-out consumers, we get a free pass.

Of course, there are Jewish families out there who celebrate Hanukkah as a kind of Xmas Lite—hang decorations, hide presents in the closet, drink cocoa, roast chestnuts, even whip out the dreaded “Hanukkah Bush,” the ultimate tragedy of assimilation. But most of us revel in our own fun, lighthearted festival, then spend Dec. 25 enjoying Chinese food and a stellar holiday blockbuster. Plus, outside the mainstream seems like the hip place to be these days. And the way I see it, Christmas is like Nickelback or the Dallas Cowboys.

So, back to this whole global warming thing. When I was young, the world was a different place. The polar ice caps were hard, Prius might as well have been another ED drug (oh wait, did we even have those then?) and drinking bottled water didn’t earn you a dirty look from all the hemp-wearing bobos outside Whole Foods. But with the benefit of hindsight, I can see that some of my family’s holiday traditions were decidedly eco-friendly, even if we didn’t know it at the time.

First off, my mom wrapped our presents in pillowcases. Well, I guess “wrapped” is something of a misnomer. She shoved some candy, a couple VHS tapes, socks and a few books into old, clean (I’m assuming) pillowcases, and we took turns grabbing stuff out. Sure, go ahead, chalk it up to laziness, but in retrospect I can see that Peggy Stabert was an eco-pioneer. (On birthdays she stepped up her game: gifts came wrapped in the Sunday funnies—in my opinion, still the most charming way to give a gift, and a great way to recycle.)

My father was a great adherent to tradition, so from him, we got exactly what his father had given him: one dollar the first night, two dollars the second night, three dollars the third night and so on. It adds up to 36 dollars. Sounds quaint, right? Too bad he usually forgot to get small bills and shoved two twenties at each of us on the fourth or fifth night—a four-dollar profit on his negligence.

We also had the rare traditions that were not a result of parental laziness. Every Friday night throughout the year, we had Shabbat dinner. It was a simple affair: a couple candles, challah and, when we were lucky, my dad’s cinnamon roasted chicken. Every week, before the meal, we went around the table, placing a quarter into the tzedakah box—a catastrophe of clay and glaze my older sister had fashioned at Hebrew school years before—and mentioned a worthwhile cause or current event that was on our minds that week. Whether it was AIDS orphans in Africa, urban reading programs or my father’s inevitable mention of the peace efforts in Israel, the quarter would go in with the rest.

On Hanukkah those quarters reemerged—becoming the plentiful booty for an epic game of dreidel. For those unfamiliar with this prosaic game, it involves no skill, none, just the twirl of a top and knowledge of the simple rules. It’s like roulette for simpletons. The winner would get to choose the charity where all the money went.Being a Jew during the ever-expanding Christmas season in America is a strange thing—I can’t eat M&Ms in the month of December without being reminded that I’m different. But it is also the rare opportunity to step outside of our nation’s full-on, disastrous commercial culture. It makes me grateful for the simplicity of this holiday, and for potato latkes. Hanukkah, like our modern-day Christmas, is a festival; it’s not a religious holiday, met with reverence and hours in synagogue. But the story at its center is still one that deserves attention. The Maccabees’ guerrilla rebellion defeated the vicious Antiochus IV, a Hellenistic tyrant who outlawed the practice of Judaism in his empire. After the triumph, there was only enough consecrated oil to burn the eternal flame in the temple for one day—but it burned for eight. It’s a story about bravery, sacrifice, hope and making do with less. Those are values we’re all going to need in the coming years. Good luck catching that turkey.

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