I have a problem. And, if you usually host a first night of Hanukkah celebration, I’m guessing you have a problem, too.
Hanukkah this year begins on Christmas Eve. So as I prepare my menu for the first night, I find myself wondering: Latkes or kung pao?
Before we dive into the sweet-and-sour meat of my problem, first let me be clear that I don’t think Hanukkah is something special. It’s a weird little commemoration of a short-lived military victory that pales in comparison to Yom HaAtzmaut in terms of pride and importance – and to Christmas in terms of absolutely everything else.
And second, we’re all going to have to come clean about Christmas. My rabbi, of all people, last year wrote a Facebook post about our tribe’s devoted rituals surrounding the holiday that began, “I think we should stop pretending that Jews do not celebrate Christmas. We do. Perhaps not with Christmas trees and Jingle Bells. But certainly, we have created our own tradition…”
And yes, the rest of that line read, “Chinese food and going to the movies.”
We Jews love our Christmas rituals. We love Hanukkah, too, but only because of its proximity
to Christmas. Without the Christian holiday as a counterpoint, Hanukkah is basically Veteran’s Day with hash browns.
So that brings me to my culinary quandary: If we’ve developed a rich and wonderful ritual surrounding someone else’s sacred holiday, does that necessarily have to take a back seat to our own not-so-sacred celebration?
My yiddishe neshumah says, “Yes.” But my yiddishe kop says, “Eh.”
We’ve pretty much commandeered Christmas. Not the religious part of it (though, you’re welcome for all your best carols, Christians), but the party aspect of it.
We drive around to ooh and ahh over the neighborhoods near us that go nuts with the Christmas lights. We delight in the giant trees at the mall. We sip our cinnamon-flavored coffee beverages out of red Starbucks cups and pick up a few fruit-shaped ornaments (you know, for Sukkot next year).
And most importantly, we gather around the table, as only Jews can, together with our family and loved ones and dig into our festival foods of sweet and sour chicken and veggie fried rice.
We’ve placed so much stock in our Christmas tradition that it’s now a thing of federal record. Remember during Justice Elena Kagan’s confirmation hearing, when Sen. Lindsey Graham asked her where she was on Christmas?
“You know, like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant.”
So, this Christmas, are “all Jews” going to be at a Chinese restaurant? Or are we going to be home with our latkes and sufganiyot?
This problem is very different than Thanksgivukkah of three years past, which found Hanukkah falling on Thanksgiving. With that mashup, we could celebrate our American holiday with plenty of room on our plates for oily Hanukkah foods. After all, doesn’t Thanksgiving commemorate America’s religious freedom? Kinda?
But this collision of dear rituals unique to American Jewry is vastly different. I wish I could ask Justice Kagan to deliver a verdict on this: Traditional Jewish Hanukkah meal or traditional Jewish Christmas dinner? Or should we split the difference and dollop sesame chicken atop latkes instead of applesauce?
If you’re in the same Sichuan pickle I’m in, I wish you a meaningful resolution and good fortune. May your holiday be filled with light and laughter.
Lucky numbers 8, 19, 35 and 24.
This post originally appeared in OC Jewish Life.