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Does The New York Times Have a Chanukah Problem?
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Editor's Desk

Does The New York Times Have a Chanukah Problem?

A recent essay reflects the inability of secular Jewish intellectuals to take Jewish tradition seriously.

Andrew Silow-Carroll is Editor in Chief of The NY Jewish Week.

The New York Times building on Eighth Avenue.(samchills/Flickr Commons)
The New York Times building on Eighth Avenue.(samchills/Flickr Commons)

Jewish Twitter was not amused by a New York Times op-ed by an author saying why she no longer celebrates Chanukah.

Sarah Prager, an historian of LGBTQ history, explains that her father is Jewish and that growing up her family attended a Unitarian Universalist meeting house. She writes that Christmas was the most important holiday in her home. As a parent herself, she no longer lights the Chanukah candles. “I am not Jewish and it doesn’t feel authentic to celebrate a Jewish holiday religiously,” she writes.

Well, okay then.

The angry comments focused on why The Times would devote space to what is essentially a rejection of a Jewish holiday by someone who doesn’t regard herself as Jewish. “Truly impossible to imagine @nytopinion allowing a random white person to appropriate the religion of any other minority — and purely for the purpose of discarding it. Gross — and revealing — on so many levels,” tweets Batya Ungar-Sargon, opinion editor of the Forward.

“To check my memory, I searched @nytimes for last decade’s #Hanukkah op-eds,” tweeted Rabbi Jill Jacobs of T’ruah. “Almost all made fun of holiday, declared [it] ‘hypocrisy,’ or ‘discovered’ that the childhood story wasn’t ‘true.’ Can NYT not find anyone with actual Jewish knowledge to write a thoughtful piece?”

My beef with the article was its lack of significance. “I no longer follow a tradition that never meant much to me in the first place” (I’m paraphrasing) is a very thin reed upon which to hang an essay.

I often tell op-ed writers to put their drafts to the “this as opposed to what?” test. A strong essay arguing for something is usually arguing against something else. I’m not sure what that “something” is in Prager’s case. Are outsiders or family members demanding that she celebrate Chanukah and asking that she explain herself? That’s not clear from the essay, and unlikely given that she and her wife have “no religion at all.”

Is she arguing against religious coercion, because “the old way hurt or didn’t fit”? Perhaps – but is Chanukah the field on which to fight that particular battle? With a powerful Christian Right in this country carving out exemptions from anti-discrimination laws based on their religious beliefs, and with a conservative propaganda machine devoted to a mythical “war on Christmas,” why pick on a minor holiday celebrated by less than 2% of the population?

And it’s not like it is news or surprising that people with Jewish heritage are letting go of Jewish traditions. Prager seems to be creating a permission structure for people to do something that they have been doing in droves for decades. Ironically, Chanukah is often the last Jewish custom that secular Jews relinquish.

Defenders of the article said she is merely describing an experience common to many families with attenuated Jewish roots, who part with vestigial customs with a combination of wistfulness and defiance. If so, Prager doesn’t make it a very interesting experience – she leaves Chanukah behind with a nostalgic shrug, with little discussion of what would be worth preserving in the first place. “Just like I did, my kids will celebrate Santa and the Easter Bunny, not a religion,” she writes.

(Compare her longing to “dust off the menorah” with the difficult and consequential struggles of the formerly charedi Orthodox men and women, profiled in a recent New Yorker article, who are torn between the all-enveloping belief structures of their youth and the uncharted territory of secular life.)

Both Ungar-Sargon and Rabbi Jacobs suggest there is something systemic about The Times’ choice to run the article ahead of Chanukah. I’ve often argued that The Times is not anti-Semitic, but rather tends to reflect the predilections of secular Jewish intellectuals — on its staff and over-represented among its readers — who take a bemused approach to Judaism and a conflicted approach to Israel. It’s a point of view that treats Jewish traditions less charitably than other religious traditions, in part because family members often treat each other worse than they would outsiders.

And as Jacobs notes, The Times has gone down this path before when it comes to Chanukah. I remember a snarky 2010 piece by novelist Howard Jacobson saying Chanukah didn’t feel authentically Jewish because its heroes are soldiers and religious zealots – perhaps the quintessential critique of a Jewish tradition by a secular Jewish intellectual. Another novelist, Michael David Lukas, picked up on this theme in 2018, calling Chanukah “an eight-night-long celebration of religious fundamentalism and violence.”

At least Jacobson and Lukas are arguing against something. Prager’s article reads like the confession of a life-long vegetarian who once ate meat as a child, and doesn’t really miss it.

Prager’s article reads like the confession of a life-long vegetarian who once ate meat as a child, and doesn’t really miss it.

One essay wouldn’t mean much to me, even within the pages of a newspaper as widely read and influential as The New York Times. What disappoints me is another lost opportunity to reflect on Chanukah and Jewish tradition in ways that are neither sermonic and pious, nor secular and snarky. There are plenty of Jewish voices who can frame Chanukah within the context of modernity, critiquing its uncomfortable aspects while preserving the ways it has been reimagined according to a modern, even liberal, Jewish understanding of religious freedom and the dilemmas of assimilation.

But that would demand editors and gatekeepers to take seriously the idea that religion and intellectual rigor can co-exist. It would mean engaging with the rabbis and everyday Jews who cherish Judaism not as a series of quaint but outdated gestures — no more or less significant than Santa or the Easter Bunny — but as a tradition of texts and actions that can speak deeply and seriously to the present moment.

Andrew Silow-Carroll (@SilowCarroll) is the editor in chief of The Jewish Week.

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