Does early Chanukah magnify December dilemma

Mashed potatoes and other Thanksgiving leftovers — move aside. Ready or not, here come the latkes.

Even though the calendar on the wall has been on December for only three days, it's time to get out the dreidels and put the chanukiah in the window.

Chanukah starts tonight, and not a moment too soon.

"Right on schedule," said Rabbi Mark Diamond of Conservative Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland.

Hmm. It doesn't seem a bit early this year?

"In my family," said Rabbi Yehuda Ferris of Chabad House of Berkeley, "Chanukah comes on the 25th of Kislev every year. Rain or shine. It never fails."

The Hebrew calendar flips from the 24th to the 25th when the sun sets at about 4:30 p.m. today. Time to light the first candle.

And it's not that much of a rarity: Chanukah comes this early on the secular calendar nearly one out of every four years. In fact, it starts in November about 10 percent of the time, arriving as early as Nov. 26 in 1899.

In the past 100 years, this will be the 23rd time that Chanukah has begun on Dec. 3 or earlier.

"Let's just say that December is coming late this year," joked Rabbi Daniel Pressman of Conservative Congregation Beth David in Saratoga.

Having Chanukah come so early in December does have its advantages, said Nancy Sheftel-Gomes, principal of the religious school at Reform Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco.

"In my opinion, it's a good learning opportunity," she said. "Chanukah is not Christmas, and my feeling as an educator and as a parent is that it's better for them to be separated as much as possible."

Other Jewish educators agree.

"It gives you more of an opportunity to present Chanukah in the right perspective," said Chani Oppenheim, director of education at Reform Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael.

"You can teach the kids, especially the smaller ones, that Chanukah is not the Jewish Christmas [and] that it is not even a major Jewish holiday," she added. "Certainly we do not at all emphasize the presents. We teach that it's a holiday that celebrates our survival as a distinct people."

One good thing about having Chanukah so early in December is that students won't be on winter break during any of the holiday's eight days.

At San Jose State, that means more Chanukah programs at Hillel, said director Lindsay Greensweig. She has Chanukah events planned for four nights, plus an ongoing art project that started four days ago: making chanukiot out of junk.

"It's a good time of year because Chanukah falls right before finals start on Dec. 13," Greensweig said. "So it gives the students a little break before they have to start studying. When Chanukah is later, they're either out on winter break or too busy with finals."

Rabbi Yosef Langer said it shouldn't matter whether Chanukah starts on Dec. 13, as it did last year, or Dec. 21, as it will next year, or even Dec. 25.

"As far as a Jew may be from his or her heritage or tradition, there's a couple of times during the year that no matter when a holiday falls, it touches us in a deep way," said the spiritual leader of Chabad House of San Francisco. "Those holidays are Chanukah and Passover. I don't think it really makes any difference when they fall on the secular calendar."

At the same time, Langer couldn't disregard the fact that some Jewish families succumb to the societal onslaught of Christmas, or try to celebrate the holidays of each parent in an interfaith marriage. Maybe having an "early" Chanukah will help in that regard.

"A lot of Jewish kids have a Christmas tree and a menorah," Langer said. "So whether it's via the calendar or other ways that we can spotlight our traditions …to bring out their beauty and relevance, then that's good."

Barbara Steinberg, a licensed clinical social worker and senior psychotherapist at Jewish Family and Children Services in Berkeley, said "an early Chanukah works both ways" for children.

"It's a good thing because there's more differentiation, but when Christmas comes around, and their friends are all having Christmas, it's harder for the young children to remember that they already had their own holiday," Steinberg said.

"But if children have a rich sense of [Chanukah], that will stand for itself," she added.

It's up to the parents to create a proper sense of what Chanukah is all about, said Pressman. He related a tale about his oldest daughter, who is now in college, being asked a question by a supermarket checkout worker when she was 4-years-old.

"My wife had her in a cart and the checkout person asked her, 'So, what do you want Santa Claus to bring you for Christmas?' She said, 'We don't have Christmas. We're Jewish. We have Chanukah and Purim.' At that moment I knew we had done our job" — not blowing Chanukah out of proportion.

Many Jews bristle when Chanukah and Christmas are compared or connected.

When asked if having Chanukah more than three weeks away from Christmas was a good thing, Oppenheim responded, "It's like asking me how Tu B'Shevat relates to President's Day just because they're close on the calendar. There's no connection in my mind."

Vicky Kelman, director of the Jewish Family Education Project at the S.F.-based Bureau of Jewish Education, insisted that talking about Chanukah in relation to Christmas is foolhardy.

"The answer to Christmas is not Chanukah. It is Sukkot. Chanukah is too slender a thread to carry that burden. Families that build a sukkah and design their own seder do not, in general, have a hard time in dealing with these seasonal issues."

However, many Jews do have a hard time dealing with the "December Dilemma." In that light, having Chanukah start on Dec. 3 or earlier for the sixth time in the past 20 years is probably beneficial.

At public schools, "it's no good when all the activities are Chanukah-dash-Christmas," said Rabbi Gerald Raiskin of Reform Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame. "This way, it's one or the other. If a kid has a birthday party, not having it mixed with another kid's birthday is best."

Diamond agreed. "I'm actually pleased that it's not coinciding with Christmas. A little separation is good. It should help people that are confused see that they are very different holidays with very different traditions.

"And even for those people who only see Chanukah as getting and giving gifts and presents, an early Chanukah can only help — you don't have to fight the [shopping] crowds quite as much."

One of the few who regret having an early December Chanukah is Tracy Salkowitz, executive director of the American Jewish Congress, Northern Pacific region.

"I was a little sorry that Chanukah was so early," she said. "The closer it is to Christmas and the more overlapping of excitement causes less stress on the child. Of course, a lot of that depends on the family and how they handle it."

She also said an early Chanukah might give public school teachers an easy out.

"It's another way off the hook. It's, 'OK, I'll teach one hour of Chanukah on Dec. 3 and then forget about it the rest of the way.'"

Rabbi Shmuel Jablon, associate headmaster at South Peninsula Hebrew Day School in Sunnyvale, said that's not a problem in Jewish day schools.

"We are certainly aware of the outside culture, but our students' primary peer group is in school with them," he said. "There is no December dilemma. The only issue is whether Chanukah will be during the winter break or not."

Social worker Amy Weiss, who works with preschoolers, youth and teenagers at Jewish Children and Family Services in Berkeley, said she likes an "early" Chanukah.

"I prefer it because then it can truly be about Chanukah and we can honor that holiday, and it doesn't blend in as much. Then we can react to Christmas however we want to — ignore it, celebrate it with friends, whatever."

But the separation between the holidays is "a double-edged sword," said Jewish educator Patti Moskovitz, who works with converts and interfaith couples. "It's nice to have them separate because then Chanukah can have its own character and not get swallowed up in all the hoopla that's going on.

"But on the other hand, when everybody else is celebrating Christmas, for little kids, what happened at the beginning of December is a long time ago to them. That makes it a challenge to parents to make Chanukah really meaningful and give it its own identity, not make it a mirror of Christmas."

Salkowitz takes a different slant.

"Many Jews are critical at how Chanukah has been blown up beyond its proper proportion and extent. My response is go nuts on Chanukah, because the best defense is a good offense. If you go overboard a little bit on Chanukah, that's great."

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.