Chanukah beyond gift-giving

As we've been reminded time and time again, Chanukah is a minor Jewish holiday.

So who makes it something other than that? Families who turn Chanukah into a gift-giving frenzy and ignore its religious messages.

They have helped transform the Festival of Lights into something it was never meant to be: an American-style celebration beyond its proper proportion.

For such families, having Chanukah fall in the early part of December — as it does this year — is probably a good thing. At least the holiday won't be completely overshadowed by ho-ho-ho's and green tinsel, and at least the malls won't be as crowded as a chanukiah on the eighth night.

As for families who have a strong, year-round commitment to Judaism, let the latkes fall where they may.

In truth, none of us should care whether Chanukah basks in its own light for eight full nights in early December or whether Christmas falls squarely on Chanukah's fifth night as it will next year.

Vicky Kelman of the Bureau of Jewish Education in San Francisco suggests we "get inside the idea of Jewish time and dwell there a bit." Then, we could see Chanukah as being on time every year.

We also need to dwell inside the story of Chanukah and get away from transforming it into the "Jewish Christmas." That there's even such a term is disheartening.

After all, part of the lesson of Chanukah is to celebrate our distinctiveness, to swim against the tide, and to stand up and be Jewish.

Rabbi Mark Diamond has an idea to teach all of the above lessons and more. The spiritual leader at Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland is urging his congregants to start a new tradition — giving tzedakah in the name of their children on the eighth night, rather than giving more gifts.

That's a good idea no matter when the holiday falls.