‘Tis the season for lots of Hanukkah junk

Terry Mattingly

It’s hard to do justice to ancient holy days in throw-pillow slogans.

Consider the Zazzle pillow featuring a menorah with an un-orthodox number of candles, along with: “Imagine if your cellphone was at 10% but lasted 8 days. Now you understand Hanukkah.”

Maybe not. Or how about the Bed, Bath & Beyond pillow stating: “Why is this night different from all other nights? Happy Hanukkah.”

Actually, that’s the most famous question from rites during a Passover Seder.

“There’s no quality control with any of this stuff. No one’s being careful with decisions about what’s good and what’s bad,” said journalist Mira Fox of the Forward, a progressive Jewish website. “The point is to sell stuff. It doesn’t need to be good stuff. It’s just stuff.

“Basically, it’s a lot of people saying, ‘We can find a way to sell stuff to Jews during the holidays, along with selling lots of stuff to everybody else.’”

Hanukkah began rather early this year, starting at sundown on Nov. 28 and extending for eight days. This placed the “Festival of Lights” closer to Thanksgiving — near the start of the merchandizing frenzy known as The Holidays.

The story at the heart of this home-centered season dates to 165 B.C., when Jews, led by the Maccabee family, defeated Greek and Syrian oppressors. When the victors reentered their temple, only one container of ritually pure oil could be found for its eternal flame. Tradition says this one-day supply burned for eight days. Thus, Jews light menorah candles during Hanukkah — one on the first night, then increasing to eight.

“It’s not a biblical holiday. Hanukkah is not in the Hebrew Bible,” said Fox. “God is not a huge part of this story. Honestly, I don’t think a lot of people understand what this holiday is about.”

That’s certainly true in the American marketplace.

Just before Thanksgiving, friends sent veteran religion writer Mark Pinsky an ironic photo taken in a high-end grocery store. At the end of one aisle was a Hanukkah display — featuring boxes of matzoh. The unintentional joke is that matzoh is the humble flatbread eaten during Passover. The food traditionally associated with Hanukkah is a fried potato pancake called a latke.

“It’s like they went to the international-food aisle and grabbed whatever was there,” said Pinsky, author of books ranging from “The Gospel According to The Simpsons” to “A Jew Among the Evangelicals: A Guide for the Perplexed.”

“It’s like they’re saying, ‘Anything Jewish will do, because we need another holiday display. So, happy Hanukkah! With matzoh!” said Pinsky. “Everything ends up being mushed together, no matter what it means — which is kind of the point of American capitalism.”

This year, with Hanukkah slotted earlier in the cultural calendar, it seemed like the American commerce powers that be went out of their way — for better and for worse — to crank out extra gifts and advertisements targeting Jewish consumers, noted Fox in a deep-dive Forward feature. It was entitled “Cheesy Hanukkah merch is everywhere now — um, that’s good for the Jews, right?”

The goal, apparently, is to treat Hanukkah like Christmas — and that’s Christmas, the tentpole event of the national economy, not Christmas, the ancient Christian holy day.

“There’s a menorah here and a candle set there, but it’s mostly wine glasses etched with ‘Oy Vey!’ and platters reading ‘Knish me, I’m Jewish!’” wrote Fox. “If there weren’t any Hanukkah options, people would be upset because of the lack of representation. But is any of this really representation? Is Walmart selling menorah-print pajamas really a sign that we’ve found acceptance in mainstream American culture?”

All of this is evidence of Jews being assimilated into the norms of American life, she said in an interview. Many of the motives that turned Hanukkah, a relatively minor Jewish holy day, into a landmark event on the American cultural calendar were completely logical. Jewish parents and community leaders were trying to find a way to fit in.

“What happened to Christmas happened organically” over decades or even centuries, she said. “But what happened to Hanukkah was a very conscious choice. Rabbis and other people decided to turn Hanukkah into this big celebration. Basically, they were saying, ‘Let’s let our children have fun, too.’”