Chanukah in Jacksonville gives “Festival of Lights” a whole new meaning for me! This is the time of year when many rabbis and Jewish educators dust off their “Christmas Dilemma” sermons or lessons. It isn’t difficult to understand why. Advertising for Christmas begins before Thanksgiving these days and in Jacksonville, where the Jewish presence is (relatively) small, Chanukah rates barely a mention. This is not the time to lament that Chanukah, a minor rabbinic holiday, has been elevated into a major holiday in order to protect the North American Jewish psyche against the annual Christmas bombardment. It is appropriate, however – especially for a Solomon Schechter Day School – to take a moment to see what light this so-called “dilemma” sheds on how one deals with the dissonance between our shared cultural heritages. Because like it or not, Christmas, is not (only) a religious holiday, but an American holiday, and as such it helps us refine our understanding of what it means to have an “integrated” curriculum.
Integration in the Jewish day school has been and continues to be a topic of which there is much discussion, but little consensus. I agree with the late, renowned Jewish educator Joseph Lukinsky when he stated that “the opposition is not between Jewish and general studies, and that the first task is not how to find some way to integrate or synthesize them”. His description of the status quo in 1978 remains apropos in that there remains two prevailing attitudes towards general studies in the day school curriculum: rejectionist (most applicable to the non-liberal day schools) and “Judaizing” – the felt need to apply a Jewish view to every general studies topic otherwise risk students will view general studies as the more relevant. [A third attitude, not prevalent during the beginnings of the day school movement, one could call assimilationist—where Jewish studies as defined in the school’s mission clearly takes a backseat to the general and any clash between values is left unmentioned and unexplored.]
Christmas is almost an unfair example to take because regardless of which attitude a Jewish day school takes, it surely isn’t going to integrate the ideas and values of Christmas into its curriculum. However, if you take one aspect of Christmas in America—consumerism—you can see how complicated integration can be. Consumerism with its focus on individual material attainment is not consonant with Jewish values. So what is a Jewish day school to do with Chanukah in today’s America?
Being “Jewish” and being “American” is not the same thing. However proud we legitimately ought to be of both our identities, we are not being intellectually honest if we claim they are identical and never in conflict. Please keep in mind that the choice not to choose between is itself a choice. Celebrating the consumerist aspects of Chanukah without acknowledging their conflict with Jewish values is to claim that such a conflict does not exist. Here at the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School, a proud Solomon Schechter school, we are neither rejectionist nor assimilationist. Nor do we feel so threatened by general society that we have to make everything Jewish. We strive to be interactionist—our philosophy which can be seen in everything from our curriculum to our bulletin boards—seeks to allow the Jewish and the general to interact naturally as it does in the real world.
So please, celebrate the historical and religious significance of Chanukah with joy, festivity, and yes, presents. But this Chanukah, let’s not forget our Jewish values of tzedakah (charity) and kehillah (community). Along with your normal gift-giving, consider donating a night or two of your family’s celebration to those less fortunate than ourselves. By doing so we send a powerful message that there are times when our Jewish values command us to reject the values of secular culture and that not only is that okay, but sometimes it is both necessary and appropriate.
Happy Turkey Day & Chanukah from my family to yours!