Poor Natalie Portman. I mean, seriously. Can you imagine your internal family struggles about religion and tradition being discussed on a talk show? I get it, she’s our mainstream Jewish role model and we Jews want her all to ourselves. But she’s married now, and she married a non-Jew (though I hear he’s converting) like many, many Jews do, and (big surprise!) her husband still wants a Christmas tree. Gasp! Are we really so surprised? Is it because we all use her as our example of Jewish grace, fame, and beauty—proof that Jews are as awesome as anyone else, even in December when it feels like Christmas reigns supreme?
Give poor Natalie a break.
As a Jewish spiritual leader, I can tell you that every December many Jewish families guiltily tell me they are getting Christmas trees. They look at me with lowered eyes waiting for … what? Shock? Judgment? Disbelief? I’m not gonna hand out any of that.
In my home, where both parents are Jewish, and one of them (aka, me) is a Cantor and a Rabbi, we don’t have a Christmas tree. No problem. Of course the kids go through phases when they want the twinkling lights, but when they do, we decorate our living room with blue and white lights and blinking Stars of David and menorahs. Problem solved. The tree issue just isn’t an issue for us probably because none of us have warm memories of Christmas unless we were at someone else’s house. It just isn’t our experience to miss. However, I have complete understanding for converts and non-Jews raising Jewish children who still yearn for their tree. When they admit to me they are going to have the tree, my question always is, “Well, what does the tree do for you?” Inevitably I get variations on the same responses every time, and those responses never have anything to do with religion. Usually I hear something like: It reminds me of being a child and of happy times with my parents who are now gone. Or, It makes me feel warm and cozy, and the lights fill me with peace. I usually tell them that “warm, cozy, peaceful family time filled with lights” sounds Jewish enough to me, and they should go for it. After all, they were going to “go for it” anyway, no matter what I said. They are just looking for someone to tell them it’s okay.
But let’s turn this whole thing around. Let’s imagine that it’s a Christian actor who publicly connects to her Christianity, who is on a talk show and tells everyone she is going to light a Chanukah menorah this year because of her Jewish husband. Anyone have a problem with that?
Well, I know very few non-Jews have Chanukah envy, but honestly, they should, and I challenge every non-Jewish reader out there to go out and buy a menorah (which is technically called a Chanukiah) and light it this year. And if you are the Jewish half of an interfaith couple, definitely request that a menorah be given a special place in your home, even if you feel like it’s “just for kids.” It isn’t, and it’s wonderful for Jews and non-Jews. Here’s why:
1. Chanukah is NOT a religious holiday. It really is the celebration of a military victory. Chanukah is about standing up for what you believe in, winning against all odds, fighting for one’s independence. The oil story? That wasn’t even part of the book of Maccabees. The miracle of the oil was added centuries later. In fact, the reason Chanukah is eight nights has nothing to do with oil but is that it was a belated celebration of Sukkot once the Temple was restored. The oil miracle was created in an attempt to add some “God” to the story and elevate its importance. But the true miracle was Jewish survival. So, if you light a menorah, you aren’t doing anything Jewishly religious; you are simply confirming that it is worth it to stand up for what you believe in, even when you are a minority, even when you think you probably won’t win.
2. Chanukah is SLOW. Chanukah has nothing to do with presents, but we Jews buy them because it’s fun and so that we and our kids don’t feel left out of the holiday gift culture. Of course, it’s fine to give presents for Chanukah, but it’s definitely not required. And whatever gifts we give, they are spread out over eight nights … no forgetting what the first gift was while grabbing the fourth. Chanukah giving is slow. We have an opportunity to take a little time and a little gratitude for each gift. In a way, y’all should make the gift-giving element of Christmas last eight nights, too! So, if you light a menorah, you don’t have to buy any more stuff. Just enjoy the moment. But if you do want to give something, a small gift is really more than enough, and the name of the game is a little at a time. Gratitude for each night, each light, and each gift is the goal.
3. Most importantly, Chanukah is about BRINGING LIGHT INTO THE WORLD. Tradition says that we should place our Chanukiah outside our front entrances or in public windows in order to make our celebration of Chanukah easy for the world to see. So we stand tall where others can see us while we celebrate. Speaking of standing tall, we take the shamash, the tallest candle, and use it to help the other candles light their own flames. So, if you light a menorah, you will be reminding yourself and your children to stand tall out in the world, not hide (even when it feels like you are the only one standing up), and help others who may not be as strong as you are, to find their own light.
So, there you have it. Three great reasons to buy a Chanukah menorah and some candles and celebrate all eight nights, even if you aren’t Jewish. Do it for Natalie.
How to Light a Chanukiah
Start with one candle in the tallest spot. This is your shamash. Each night add one more candle to the lower spots, filling it in from the right to the left (the same direction as Hebrew is read), but always light the candles from left to right.
Here are the blessings to say after you have lit the Shamash, before you light the rest (but, why not say them while lighting the rest of the candles? Fine with me!). Also here are our Cool Shul/Interfaith translations. Say the first two every night. Say the last one just the first night because it is a blessing for new beginnings.
(say each night)
Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech ha-olam asher kid-sha-nu b’mitz-vo-tav v’tzi-va-nu l’had-lik neir shel Chanukah.
Interfaith translation: Blessed is this opportunity to bring our inner light into the world by lighting these Chanukah candles.
Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech ha-olam she’a-sah ni-sim la’avo-tei-nu, ba-ya-mim ha-heim ba-z’man hazeh.
Interfaith translation: Blessed is this opportunity to enjoy our freedom as we celebrate the miracle that led to the freedom of others at this season many years ago.
(first night only)
Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech ha-olam she-he-che-ia-nu v’ki-i-ma-nu v’hi-gi’a-nu la-z’man ha-zeh.
Interfaith translation: Blessed is all that came to pass which led to our living, to our being sustained with bounty, and to our being here at this moment.
Diane Rose is the spiritual leader of Cool Shul. Cool Shul is a Jewish community in Los Angeles created to provide a new, progressive, spiritual model for those for whom traditional synagogues are no longer (or never were) a comfortable fit. We are based in Jewish Universalist ideals: that there are many ways to be Jewish, that Judaism is not in any way a superior path, and that all are welcome as full participants no matter what their religious histories. We provide an embracing, guilt-free, judgment- free environment to celebrate, pray, learn, and make the world a better place.