Did you know that more than 80% of Israelis, the majority of whom are secular, light candles every night of Hanukkah? The practice has apparently become, for many, a cultural act, devoid of religious meaning,much like Hanukkah’s Christian counterpart, Christmas, has become for Americans. We can learn from this phenomenon that people like getting presents, lighting fires and eating foods that are bad for them, whether or not doing so is commanded by God.
It’s because these particular holidays make us feel like kids again.
On the first night of Hanukkah, my mother threw a Hanukkah party with a mix of family and friends, all adults. I was engaged in a very adult conversation about some boring adult thing or other, when suddenly I heard my mother’s voice call out, with way more enthusiasm than I thought was warranted, “Who wants to play dreidel?”
Dreidel? I had forgotten about that part of the holiday. It seemed secondary to the food and the fire. And the presents. To my surprise, though, a number of attendees joined in enthusiastically. Those not actually playing the game (which is in truth, if played authentically, akin to the very adult activity of gambling), engaged in a competition to see who could get the best spin out of their plastic dreidels. Hanukkah is an excuse to act like children and have fun.
Yet, returning to this interesting phenomenon of secular Israelis lighting candles, it’s about more than just having fun. One or two nights of lighting candles would be fun. But all eight nights? That’s not fun, that takes commitment. By way of contrast, when non-religious Americans celebrate Christmas, they don’t do all twelve days. (Do religious Christians even do all twelve days?)
The actual commandment to light candles on Hanukkah is meant to publicize the miracle of Hanukkah miracle (Maccabees’ victory, enough oil for eight days, yada yada yada). But it’s become more about asserting pride in (or at the very least recognition of) being Jewish. Which is a lot more than most Americans can say about having a Christmas tree.
When my husband and I got back home from the party, we lit our own candles, and sat by the window in our living room looking out at all the other windows with lit candles shining out. It felt like we could play Jewish geography, drawing a map of the Jews in our neighborhood by connecting the flame dots.
But that probably would have caused a fire.
P.S. Here’s a fireless way to light candles this Hanukkah (though not technically a fulfillment of the mitzvah).
–Rebecca Honig Friedman