Are all Jews preparing for Thanksgivukkah the same way?

Many years ago, I worked at a newspaper — let’s leave the name out of this discussion — that ran a Hanukkah feature, with lots of art, about an exhibit of menorahs. The interesting wrinkle was that some of these menorahs were quite modern or even postmodern in design, including several that specifically violated ancient Jewish laws about how to make, and how not to make, menorahs.

The newspaper feature did not note this conflict about the shape and content of menorah designs and the faith wrinkles in the clashing visions of Judaism built into these works of art.

Several readers, all Orthodox Jews, called the newsroom to ask if this oversight — for them, it was an offense — was intentional.

The answer was “no.” The people doing the feature had no idea that there were kosher menorahs and decidedly un-kosher menorahs.

You know the old saying about China, the one that says, “Just about anything you want to say about China is true, somewhere in China.” The same thing is true in Judaism. Trust me on that. On just about any issue linked to life and faith, there are plenty of Jews who disagree with one another. Often, this is a clash between very old and very new approaches to the faith.

Thus, I would like to offer limited praise to the A1 “Thanksgivukkah” feature that ran the other day in the newspaper that lands in my front yard. Let me note that the comments I now offer about this story could have been made about dozens of other stories in the mainstream press, as the tsunami of news builds related to this very interesting crossroads between ancient and modern calendars.

The bottom line: This Baltimore Sun story is lots of fun and contains all kinds of interesting wrinkles. The problem is that the Sun team never slows down long enough to note that not all Jews will be celebrating in the same way and why this is the case. By the way, this kind of dispute about religious traditions is at the very heart of the deeper meaning of Hanukkah.

More on that later. Let’s start right up from with the fine overture:

Brace yourself for the epic convergence of two holidays — a celebration of rich dishes, piles of sweets and family togetherness the likes of which have never before been seen and won’t be repeated for more than 77,000 years.

Thanksgivukkah is coming. Latkes with cranberry sauce. Turkey-shaped menorahs. Cornucopias stuffed with dreidels.

Thanks to quirks of the Jewish and Gregorian calendars, Hanukkah and Thanksgiving will coincide this month for the first time since 1888, back when celebrations of both holidays were more muted. The next time the holidays will match up is the year 79,811. Why the long gap?

“Nobody understands it,” said Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg of Beth Tfiloh Congregation. The short answer, according to Wohlberg, is that Nov. 28 is the earliest possible date for Hanukkah and the latest possible for Thanksgiving.

OK, at some point all Hanukkah stories have to explain what this minor Jewish holiday is all about. This story is no exception.

Read carefully.

Although Hanukkah is sometimes seen as being the Jewish equivalent of Christmas, the holiday’s underlying themes have more in common with Thanksgiving, Wohlberg explained.

“The concept of Hanukkah is a concept of thanksgiving,” he said. “Hanukkah marks the first victory over religious persecution. On Thanksgiving, we’re celebrating living in a country that has allowed us to have that freedom.”

The religious persecution and religious liberty theme is there. But there’s more. Later on, readers are told:

Wohlberg said this would be a good year to try frying the turkey. Since Hanukkah commemorates a miracle in which a small vial of oil managed to keep the flame in the Temple burning for eight days, Hanukkah foods, like latkes and doughnuts, are traditionally fried in oil.

Yes, that oil symbolism is crucial. But there’s another layer of meaning in that miracle.

[Read more...]