One of my longstanding critiques of American Judaism is that American Jewish identity is too focused on Israel, to the detriment of building an American Judaism and American Jewish identity that relate primarily to the issues that are uniquely American Jewish. Not only has the overwhelming centrality of Israel crowded out other values around which to build a robust American Jewish culture of consensus,it has also counterintuitively fed the divide between American Jews and their Israeli counterparts. American Judaism and Israeli Judaism are different in myriad ways, so much so that they often look like completely different manifestations of Judaism. The way in which the topic of Israel has so thoroughly dominated 75 years of American Jewish thought and debate is now contributing to the growing gap between American Jews and Israel since each side looks at the other and often does not recognize what it sees.
Hanukkah is a stark example of the differences between American Jews and Israeli Jews. For Israelis, Hanukkah has played an outsized role in the mythology around the State of Israel. The Hanukkah story was embraced by early Zionists and Israel’s founders, but it was a specifically distinct part of the story that was embraced. For early Zionism, Hanukkah was not about the rededication of the Temple following its desecration by Antiochus IV, the triumph of Jewish practice free from persecution, or the miracle of one canister of oil burning for eight nights. Hanukkah was about Jewish political sovereignty in the land of Israel, and about Jewish self sufficiency and strength in overcoming enemies and uniting the Jewish people in a collective call to action. Hanukkah was not about God’s miracles on behalf of the Jewish people, but about the Jewish people’s successes on their own behalf, and about self-liberation and redemption. This nationalist interpretation of Hanukkah has carried on from early Zionism through today in contemporary Israel, where Hanukkah is still viewed as a uniquely Israeli holiday connected to the state in a way that other Jewish holidays are not.
American Jews also embrace Hanukkah, but for them the holiday means something very different. Hanukkah is not imbued with the same nationalist message as it is for Israelis, but rather is viewed as a festival of religious freedom and overcoming persecution. Despite being one of Judaism’s minor holidays and the only one not mentioned in the biblical canon, Hanukkah is arguably the most well-known Jewish holiday in the U.S., the one that has most thoroughly penetrated wider American culture, and one of the most widely celebrated holidays by American Jews. For many American Jews, Hanukkah symbolizes the historically unprecedented status that we enjoy in the U.S. of living openly as Jews, free from governmental or widespread societal persecution, and the story of the Hasmonean family and the Maccabees is primarily about religious freedom. Second-century BCE Jews fought hard for their right to live and practice as Jews, and longstanding American Jewish struggles for acceptance, First Amendment freedoms, and civil rights are imbued with the backdrop of Hanukkah.
Since Hanukkah falls during the winter holiday season, it has also taken on a distinctly American commercial flavor, with Jews and non-Jews alike often viewing it as the Jewish equivalent of or alternative to Christmas. Giving gifts, which has no historical or religious connection to celebrating Hanukkah, has become automatic Hanukkah practice, and Hanukkah displays, sales, and specials are inevitably lumped together with Christmas ones. While this has nothing to do with the holiday itself, it has turned Hanukkah into an even more potent symbol of Jewish acceptance in the U.S. The ubiquity of Hanukkah and its elevation to a Christmas parallel despite Jews making up less than 2% of the U.S. population is evidence of how interwoven American Judaism has become into the larger fabric of American life. In its way, Hanukkah is as important to American Jews as it is to Israeli Jews because it tells the story of the evolving American Jewish experience and American Jewish success.
The Israeli and American stories of Hanukkah are both stories of liberation—liberation from foreign political domination and liberation from majority religious and societal domination—but they are very different stories with very different spins and focuses. Hanukkah exemplifies the gap between Israeli Jewishness and American Jewishness, and illustrates why the Israeli and American contexts do not always, or even often, traverse that gap so easily.
But despite Hanukkah’s encapsulation of this divide between the two largest segments of the Jewish people, it also provides a handy model for how that divide can be appropriately bridged. While Hanukkah is something that American Jews and Israeli Jews may think about differently, it is not something that is a driver of difference. Unlike the many sources of tension in the relationship—American policy toward Israel, Israel’s uneasy relationship with liberal values, the dominance of the Conservative and Reform movements in the U.S. contrasted with the disdain with which they are treated in Israel, increasing American Jewish embrace of pressure tactics against Israeli policies toward the West Bank and Gaza—the contrasting interpretations of Hanukkah’s message do not cause tension or discord. It is an example of how difference can be welcomed and how diversity among Israeli and American Jewry can be an overt source of strength and richness. The fact that Hanukkah occupies a place of primacy among both Israeli Jews and American Jews brings the two sides together and fosters a larger sense of unity and peoplehood, even if opinions about the meaning of Hanukkah are different on both sides of the ocean.
Hanukkah also offers a glimpse of what an organic American Judaism that takes its own development seriously looks like. The prism through which American Jews view Hanukkah is unique to the American Jewish experience; it is not reliant on an Israeli angle or dependent on current political or religious developments in Israel. While Israel is prominent throughout—the Hanukkah story is after all about a Jewish rebellion in the Land of Israel and a Jewish reformation centered around the Second Temple—it does not dominate the way in which American Jews relate to the holiday. It instead relies on the history of American Jews and the culture of American Judaism to structure American Jewish engagement with traditional customs and celebrations of an ancient Jewish holiday. For all of its minor importance in the scope of Jewish practice and belief, Hanukkah has become critically important as a model for fostering unity across global Jewish difference and creating an American Jewish identity that stands on its own.