Why Hanukkah Is More Than Just Dreidels

Harriet Tubman? She was the Underground Railroad heroine in pre-Civil War America who was responsible for freeing about 300 slaves. She also has the distinction of being one of the most widely-taught historical figures during Black History Month, along with the very obvious inclusion of Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. After months of history about Washington and Jefferson and other white men, classrooms turn ever-so-briefly to discuss African Americans in history.

And Harriet Tubman is the perfect choice for Black History Month lesson plans. After all, she comes with a fantastic story of heroic personal acts that contributed to the freedom of oppressed minorities. On top of that, she fits multiple diversity checkboxes – black and female – so school districts with a nominal interest in diversifying their curriculum snatch her up. As a result, poor Harriet Tubman has become the ultimate token Black History figure. White students learn about, and along with King and Parks, she’s probably the only Black History figure that many White people remember.

Sounds like Hanukkah, the only Jewish holiday that many non-Jews recognize?

Most of us have experienced the tokenism of Hanukkah. We’ve sung the dreidel song in those childhood “holiday” assemblies, sandwiched between songs about Santa and Baby Jesus. We’ve had coworkers go out of their way to wish us a Happy Hanukkah, while never acknowledging the far more significant High Holidays or Passover. We’ve fielded “polite” questions about menorahs and latkes and the Maccabees, as if we are the personal spokespeople of all things Hanukkah. (I send these questioners to Chabad.org and try not to roll my eyes too much.)

And, if you’re like me, you have dreidels. My daughter and I have lots of them, gifted to us in assorted holiday exchanges over the years. “I’d like to get to know more about your traditions!” one person wrote on the package. I am fully aware that this particular gift-giver—who probably knows very few Jews—had nothing but the best intentions. But it made me sad to think that in her mind, the complex religious and cultural world of Judaism is reduced to a little top with Hebrew letters on each side. I don’t know about you, but I play the game of dreidel so rarely that when I do, I have to look up which letter stands for which move in the game.

Hanukkah, of course, has achieved this tokenism because of its proximity to Christmas. Depending on how you look at it, this probably isn’t entirely a bad thing. It’s hard to grow up in a society where a whole month is devoted to a holiday that’s not yours. Tokenism or not, Hanukkah makes Jewish kids feel more included. Personally, as a mother, I’m grateful that we’ve become a culture where people say Happy Holidays as often as they say Merry Christmas (to the great chagrin of a certain brand of Christian, of course).

The downside to that, of course, is that Hanukkah becomes a pseudo-multicultural excuse for Christmas being everywhere. Schools think it’s okay to sing about Santa and Jesus because they throw in the dreidel song. Offices think it’s okay to put Christmas decorations all over the place if they dig out a plastic menorah.

As an adult, I’ve come to reconcile this by learning to appreciate Hanukkah for what it really is – not as the token Jewish holiday that accompanies Christmas, but as a pretty amazing celebration in its own right. Hanukkah is a celebration of religious freedom. In today’s political climate, that’s more important than ever. These days, we have politicians who try to equate “religious freedom” with refusing to do business with people from the LGBTQ community, along with serious talk about a possible Muslim registry – not to mention, of course, an increase in the appearance of swastikas and anti-Semitic hate speech since the election. There’s no better time than 2016 to celebrate religious freedom.

And the thing about Hanukkah being the Harriet Tubman of Jewish holidays is that, well, Harriet Tubman rocks. It’s not her fault that she’s being taught about in lieu of a more comprehensive understanding of Black History. In fact, Harriet Tubman is a little like the Maccabees (and also Moses, to whom she is often compared). She freed people. We could all stand to recognize more people and traditions that are about freedom.

So this year, I’ll be celebrating Hanukkah with pride. I’ll take out the menorah – and maybe our massive dreidel collection – and eat some of my mother’s amazing latkes. I will teach my daughter about religious freedom, which isn’t as colorful as Santa, but it’s way more cool. Chag Semeach!