Hanukkah Gelt … Ever-So-Sweetly Fomenting Dissent
Let me tell you about Hanukkah in Cincinnati, Ohio, in the 1960s. Cincinnati is where I grew up. And at this time of year, lots of families, lots of Jewish families, including mine, had Christmas trees. Hanukkah was a candle-lighting time. We celebrated it, but not by giving gifts – not even socks or underwear. That Johnny Seven seven-in-one pistol/machine gun/grenade launcher (that I would have laid down my life for) would have to wait for Christmas. As would the latest Beatles record album. Amazingly, this kid-who-would-one-day-become-a-rabbi woke up at 6:00 in the morning every December 25th to see what Santa had placed beneath the Dreskin family Christmas tree.
But Hanukkah gelt, that was something else! Those sweet, brown little coins wrapped in gold, always with a surprise inside – you never knew if it’d be fresh or years-old chocolate – that was Hanukkah for me. And being the youngest of six kids in my house, I was a pretty tranquil guy all other times of the year, but during Hanukkah all was fair in chocolate and war. Nobody’s stockpile was safe when I was in the gelt-jungle!
But here’s the funny thing about Hanukkah. Okay, funny to me. As with so many of our Jewish traditions, the reasons our religious school teacher gave us for why things were what they were, these turned out to maybe not be so true. Of course, “true” in a history where 2000 years of it was spent wandering and, far too often, running from people who wanted to kill you, “true” can be difficult to keep track of. So cut my 4th grade Sunday school teacher Mrs. Rosenfeld some slack, will you?
As a kid, I was taught that when the Maccabees revolted against Syrian-Greek persecution, the rebellious Israelites minted their own coins as an act of defiance against their foreign rulers, as if to say, “You are not our government. We rule ourselves.” So the minting of coins served as a provocative and powerful statement for freedom and independence. The gelt we gobble reminds us of Hanukkah’s message about the importance of standing up to oppressive rulers who think it’s okay to bully others.
This week, bullying got a vote of acceptance when Sony Pictures acquiesced to computer hackers who broke into their digital corporate storage closets and threatened violence if the movie, “The Interview,” a comedy starring Seth Rogen and James Franco that makes fun of North Korea, is released in movie theaters. The Department of Homeland Security has deemed the threat “non-credible,” but Sony pulled the film anyway. Film star and political activist George Clooney circulated a petition urging Sony not to acquiesce to the hackers’ demands but couldn’t get a single leader in the film industry to sign it. “We have allowed North Korea to dictate content,” Clooney says, “and that is just insane.”
At the time of year when our community remembers (and honors!) our ancestors specifically for them standing up to threats from bullying thugs, it gives us food for thought that you and I can’t choose whether or not to see “The Interview” when it won’t open on December 25. Good topic for car-talk on the way home tonight.
So back to Hanukkah gelt. There’s another theory circulating about the custom which I like a lot. First, it recognizes that Hanukkah was never Judaism’s big gift-giving holiday. That role has historically belonged to Purim. It’s written right inside the Scroll of Esther that, in celebration of Shushan’s victory over Haman, “[t]hey were to observe [the 14th and 15th of Adar] as days of feasting and merrymaking, and as an occasion for sending gifts to one another and presents to the poor.”
It turns out that when Jews were living in Eastern Europe in the 19th century, Hanukkah became a time to present one’s vendors (the butcher, the teacher, the water carrier) with an end-of-the-year gratuity. A tip to say thanks, just like those envelopes we get from the newspaper delivery folks at Christmas time. Hanukkah gelt wasn’t for our kids, but for the service industry in our towns and villages.
I’m not sure there was much class distinction back then between these service providers and ourselves. Pretty much everybody was struggling to make ends meet in the shtetl. But for us today, the service industry is very often comprised of people we rarely see, or converse with, except when they’re doing their jobs. These folks, for you and me, are “the other.” So if Hanukkah was a time when our ancestors reached out to do something nice for those who fell into that social category of “the other,” maybe it’s a good time for you and me to do the same.
A Jewish holiday that recalls fighting back against those who made hurtful decisions regarding those under their power and control? Sounds to me like government policy gone wrong. I’m thinking of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, and the continuing racism in America, of how we may no longer subscribe to racist ideas but that our nation has such a long way to go before it learns how to no longer see color when interacting with another human being. African-Americans are still “the other” in this nation. We would do well to dedicate part of our Hanukkah gift-giving to the struggle against continuing inequality. “Black lives matter” has become the call for a new freedom in America. Perhaps we can be Maccabees and help.
Hanukkah gelt is a wonderful tradition. It’s sweet and it’s clouded in mystery. For me, Jewish life doesn’t get much richer than that. Except for this: When my tradition shines a light on a social condition in my community and challenges me to do something to help, now I not only like the tradition, I’m honored to be its practitioner.
Tonight is the 4th night of Hanukkah. Four down, four to go. Perhaps there are some wonderful gifts hiding somewhere in your home, still to be given out on nights five through eight. May I humbly ask that you talk tonight when you go home about this gelt tradition and how you and yours can step up and advocate for “the other.” I’m sure you won’t have to look far for a worthy recipient. Once you see them in your heart, your pocket and your hand won’t be far away.
I don’t miss the Dreskin family Christmas tree. For us, it was just about taking, anyway. We never really understood the Christian idea of responding to the gifts of the Magi and giving to others where it really matters. But Hanukkah gelt, that message – to speak up for those whose voices aren’t yet able to effect needed change for themselves – that message still reverberates loudly in my life. And I hope in yours too. I am privileged to count myself among those of all religions whose spiritual journey points them in the direction of looking out for others.
To you and your loved ones, hag urim sameakh … may this Hanukkah bring to a world that so very much needs it … light and warmth and peace.
Ken yehi ratzon.