"Blessed are you, Adonai our God, Ruling Spirit of the Universe, by whose Mitzvot we are hallowed, who commands us to kindle the Hanukkah lights."
That prayer of blessing will be recited, in Hebrew, by Jews around the world when they light the first candle of Hanukkah at sunset Sunday.
The eight-day holiday commemorates the events of 165 B.C., when the Second Temple of Jerusalem was recaptured from Syrian-Greek oppressors. A lamp in the temple had enough oil to last just one night, but it burned miraculously for eight days.
The struggles of the Jews who fought for independence from the Hellenists nearly 2,200 years ago are still relevant today for Jews striving to preserve their unique heritage and identity, according to Rabbi Moshe Saks of Congregation B'nai Israel in Sylvania.
"Hellenism saw itself as the great universal human culture, open to all. It demanded that the Jews give up their distinctiveness for the sake of the betterment of mankind," Rabbi Saks wrote in a Hanukkah essay.
Just as the Maccabees, or nationalist Jews, fought for freedom from the Greeks, so must American Jews today make a conscious effort to maintain their individuality amidst a pluralistic, multicultural society.
That struggle is particularly evident this time of year - during "the December dilemma," as some Jews call it - when Christmas, the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, becomes such an overwhelming cultural force.
And yet, Rabbi Saks said in an interview this week, Jews do not need to cut themselves off from mainstream culture, but to use good judgment.
"We Jews have survived because we have been able to adapt to cultures around us, to take part in the culture around us and incorporate it into Jewish culture," he said.
There is a fine line, however, between the aspects of culture that can be incorporated and those that should be avoided, Rabbi Saks added.
"We can't take a Christmas tree and make it into a Hanukkah bush," he said. "We have to take those things that have inherent Jewish value in them."
The Torah warns the Israelites "not to ape the pagans," he added.
One of the perennial points of discussion among the three major Jewish movements is how much of the surrounding culture can be incorporated and how much should be rejected, Rabbi Saks said.
Reform Jews are more accepting of the surrounding culture while Orthodox and Ultra Orthodox Jews lean toward a greater separation, he said.
Rabbi Saks said his Conservative denomination "seeks what we consider a healthy balance."
An example of a positive way that Jews have borrowed from American culture is giving gifts during Hanukkah, similar to the way Christians exchange gifts for Christmas.
"Because of the juxtaposition of Hanukkah and Christmas, especially this year [when the dates overlap], there's this danger that we feel left out. We want to be part of it," Rabbi Saks said.
Well-chosen gifts for Hanukkah can allay such feelings of being left out, he said, while at the same time bolstering Jewish traditions and beliefs.
"The gifts should not just be toys and whatever, but they should be Jewish gifts," Rabbi Saks said.
Hanukkah gifts for children that promote Judaism include religious music CDs or videos, books, kiddish cups, and special kipahs, or yarmulkes.
Rabbi Saks said he and his wife, Meira, were raised in families that took opposite approaches to celebrating Hanukkah.
"My parents never gave gifts on Hanukkah. Her father was a rabbi and gave gifts every night - not extravagant gifts, but gifts of Jewish value," he said.
Today, he said, the Saks family does exchange gifts and every member of the family has his or her own Hanukkiot, or menorah, in which they light one candle per day during the eight-day holiday.
Contact David Yonke at:
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