Hanukkah, clarified Observance: To offset the consumerism that has crept into the Jewish holidays, a Baltimore writer calls attention to their deeper meaning.


The worrisome thing for many Jews about the eight-day Hanukkah celebration, which begins tonight, is that, in the words of a popular holiday tune, "It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas."

With more emphasis on gift-giving, creeping consumerism and the adoption of Christmas-like customs such as holiday cards and Hanukkah bushes, the deeper spiritual meaning of Hanukkah can be lost, says Shimon Apisdorf, a Baltimore author who wants to make the Jewish holidays more meaningful.

Because it occurs around Christmas, Hanukkah is "so celebrated, particularly in North America, that it's taken on a whole new level of significance for people," said Apisdorf, a Pikesville resident and author of "Chanukah, Eight Nights of Light, Eight Gifts for the Soul."

"It really represents in my mind a somewhat superficial understanding of Judaism that many people have: the gifts and the presents, the metaphor and imagery of gifts and seeing beautiful wrapping paper, but not having a sense of what's really there," he said.

Apisdorf is determined to help other Jews discover what's really there: the deeper, spiritual significance of Jewish holidays. He owns a publishing company, Leviathan Press, and has written several books aimed at helping Jews understand their religious holidays, including the "Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur Survival Kit" and the "Passover Survival Kit."

Apisdorf understands what it means to have no clue about Jewish observance. "I personally grew up with very minimal Jewish education," the Cleveland native said. "Later on, in early adulthood, I started studying, checking things out, asking questions, ended up studying in Israel, studying in the states."

After studying at Telshe Yeshiva of Cleveland and the Aish HaTorah College of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, Apisdorf started offering introductory services for the Jewish High Holidays. That led to the writing of his first survival kit, which he published, launching Leviathan Press when he couldn't find anyone to publish it.

In his latest book on Hanukkah, Apisdorf points out the "historical irony" that the celebration of the holiday is strongly influenced by Christmas.

Maccabees' victory

Hanukkah celebrates the victory of a band of Jewish fighters, the Maccabees, who in 165 B.C. recaptured the Temple in Jerusalem from Greek invaders. When the Maccabees reentered the Temple, they found enough oil to light the great menorah for only one day. Miraculously, the menorah continued to burn for the eight days needed to prepare more oil.

Apisdorf notes that the Jews were resisting not just a Greek military power but also a Greek culture, which they saw as a foreign and corrupting influence.

"Hanukkah is a direct outgrowth of the Jewish insistence on maintaining its identity in the face of what was potentially a very overwhelming cultural force," he said, and the holiday representing that resistance "has taken on, particularly in North America, disproportionate prominence in terms of where it fits in with the rest of the Jewish calendar year and the reason is because of the fact that it comes so close to Christmas."

"It's ironic," he said, "that the holiday that exists because it was trying to resist a culture now owes its prominence to a certain extent to another culture."

Rabbi Shlomo Porter, director of the Etz Chaim Center in Park Heights, which offers adult Jewish education classes, said the meaning of Hanukkah never got lost. "It never got presented," he said.

Hanukkah is "a really strong message not to assimilate," he said, which is especially relevant to a rapidly assimilating North American Jewish population.

"It was a fight for the soul of the Jewish people. Is it Hellenism or Judaism? Is it assimilation or keeping your particular and unique relationship with the divine?" he said. "Hanukkah is not about God doing miracles. It's about people fighting for their spiritual soul. That has to be what parents have to sit down and tell their children."

Gifts each night

Instead of that message, what seems to get the most attention, Apisdorf said, is the relatively new practice of giving gifts each night of Hanukkah.

"You want to try and, in some way, on [a child's] level, talk about the values or the ideas or the meaning of Hanukkah," said Apisdorf, who conceded that he and his wife also give their children a few gifts. "You don't stand a chance next to Beanie Babies or Tickle Me Elmo or whatever is the hottest thing that year."

But Apisdorf offers suggestions for a more meaningful Hanukkah: Meditate on the menorah. "There's something very meditative about a flame in general, and in Jewish thought a candle and its flame is used as an image for the soul," he said. "At Hanukkah, there is an idea to spend time with the flames. Find quiet time and just look at it and allow yourself to feel the flame within you, so to speak, that part of you that is trying to reach higher."

Study the holiday. "If you go on a vacation, to the extent that you put a little bit of thought and planning into it, that's going to have a big impact on what you get out of the trip," he said. "The holiday is coming, so learn about it a little bit. What are the sights, what are the spiritual attractions of this week? We're spending the week in Hanukkahland, so to speak. So what's there?"

Give the gift of love. "Each night of Hanukkah, each person in the family writes one thing that they think is beautiful or special about each other person in the house," he said. "And then at the end of the eight nights, each person has identified eight beautiful things in everyone else in the house. And then to give that compliment as a gift to one another [is] an exercise in seeing the shining lights that are in your own home, within yourself and within everyone else in your home."

Pub Date: 12/13/98

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