Hanukkah is a wonderful example of the resilience of Judaism, and the Jewish imperative to reinterpret our tradition in every generation. A minor holiday that had been largely neglected by American Jews in the late 19th century - an article in the Yiddish daily Forverts in 1904 pointed to the giving of Christmas gifts in Jewish homes as "one of the first things that proves one is no longer a greenhorn" - Hanukkah underwent a kind of renaissance in the middle of the 20th century. (See Jenna Weissman Joselit's article in Reform Judaism.) Sociologist Marshall Sklare observed in the 1960s that the lighting of Hanukkah candles, a relatively unimportant mitzvah when compared to, say, kashrut or Shabbat, was the only Jewish practice whose observance was increasing from generation to generation. To this day, lighting Hanukkah candles remains the most widely-performed Jewish activity in America.
And what is it about Hanukkah that caused its resurgent popularity? Sklare pointed to its proximity to December 25, which allowed a somewhat obscure holiday to be redefined, more or less, as "the Jewish Christmas," allowing Jewish parents to placate their otherwise gift-less children under a kosher rubric. (As one who grew up in a particularly non-Jewish town, with parents who did not embrace the American presents-for-Hanukkah custom, I recall distinctly the pain of December in my earlier years.)
But perhaps there is something else there. The powerful, universal symbol of lighting lights during a dark time of year, coupled with the message of Jewish victory in the face of another conquering adversary, and further bolstered by the pleasure of a home-based Jewish activity that is not overly-burdened with extensive, complex rituals all make Hanukkah an easy sell, the low-hanging latke of the Jewish calendar.
Hanukkah is the Jewish answer to Seasonal Affective Disorder: a beacon of joy in an otherwise depressing period. Make a berakhah or two, kindle some candles, and sing a song. It's good for you! Hag urim sameah - happy Festival of Lights.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally published in the Temple Israel Voice, 12/8/2011.)