Finding your “J”

December 2022
Rabbi Ben Shefter

What would you say if I told you that most of the hallmarks of Chanukah are not Jewish? How would you feel if you learned the traditions you know and love derive from other faiths and ethnicities? 

The truth is that Chanukah is teeming with non-Jewish traditions. The game of dreidel derives from a German game called teetotum, played around Christmas. The letters on the dreidel, nun (נ), gimmel (ג), hay (ה), and shin (ש) are the rules of the game in Yiddish, it is only a later addition that it means “A great miracle happened there.”  Sufganiyot, jelly doughnuts now rampant in Israel, combines a Moroccan breakfast doughnut, sfenj, and the Polish ponchkis. The infamous potato latke originated as an Italian cheese pancake. The more one looks around the Jewish table; the more one realizes how much the local traditions and cuisine affect the celebration of holidays. 

Not only does Judaism take traditions from local communities; faiths are influenced by Judaism. The advent wreath, the Christmas lights, and the Kwanzaa candles are all examples of communities using light in their winter celebrations around Chanukah time. The Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Avodah Zarah 8a, even explains that Adam created an eight-day celebration around the winter solstice, which communities have celebrated long before Abraham was even born. Some suggest that it was much later, when the Maccabee story happened, that the winter celebration became the unique Jewish celebration of Chanukah. 

So what are we to learn from a holiday that feels like the multitude of holidays celebrated in December that borrow so much from one another? 

For me, the answer started to form when I learned Maccabees I, a part of the Apocrypha written in the 2nd Century BC, that tells a version of the Chanukah story. In chapter one, a group of “wicked men,” what one might call secular Jews, wanted to Hellenize Jerusalem. This meant building gyms and bathhouses, ceasing circumcision, and ending religious worship in the Temple. A group of religious Jews, the Maccabees, fought the wicked Jews and the Syrian Greeks to reinstate Jewish tradition and culture. According to this version of the Chanukah story, Chanukah was founded as a religious holiday, a holiday reminding us of our commitment to God and pushing against modern culture and Hellenistic ideas. 

Even though the story in Maccabees I seems to be a war between secular and religious ideologies, the proliferation of Chanukah celebrations throughout modern times has been about integrating Judaism into the small moments of people’s lives. Being able to light candles to differentiate ourselves as Jews while blending the best parts of local traditions has enabled generations of Jews to be proud Jews who can feel part of their local, non-Jewish, community.  In other words, the core of Chanukah is not about building a wall and keeping secularization out; it is about integrating modern advances into our Jewish practice and evolving Judaism into a vibrant religion for everyone. It isn’t that gymnasiums and Hellenistic ideas are inherently wrong; it is about learning to elevate them to a higher, more spiritual, purpose.  

In Jewish education, this merging of secular and Jewish identity is referred to as finding the J. When a youth group runs an ice skating event, we can ask what is Jewish about it. When Hillel runs Bagels, and Beyond, we can ask what makes this Jewish. When someone volunteers as a form of Tikkun Olam, we can ask what is Jewish about volunteering. 

As a rabbi and educator, this concept of ensuring Judaism underpins everyday experiences  drives my work. No interaction should be left without a backdoor piece of Torah or exploring how Judaism frames our current situations.

This year, as we celebrate Chanukah, I encourage you to take some time to learn about how Judaism influences and transforms the ideas, rituals, and traditions around you and spend the eight days finding your Jewish voice— or in other words, finding your “J.”

Rabbi Ben Shefter, an orthodox rabbi from Baltimore, Maryland, is currently the Senior Director and Senior Jewish Educator at McMaster Hillel.