December 22, 2011

If George Bailey had been Jewish, “It’s a Wonderful Life” could have had a very different last act: Jimmy Stewart rushes home to light the last candle on the Hanukkah menorah, spin the dreidel with Zuzu and celebrate her recovery from a fever with a bit of chocolate gelt. Sound strange? Perhaps no more so than a minor Jewish holiday marked by an extravagant eight days of gift-giving only because, according to a 2010 study, it falls close to Dec. 25.

“The importance of Hanukkah among American Jews is driven by its proximity (in the time dimension) to Christmas,” Ran Abramitzky, Liran Einav and Oren Rigbi write in “Is Hanukkah Responsive to Christmas?” a study published in the Economic Journal. “Many American Jews use Hanukkah as a way to provide their children with an exciting alternative.”

In Israel, for example, Hanukkah doesn’t garner much attention. The holiday, which does not appear in the Old Testament, celebrates the ancient Israelites’ rededication of the Temple of Jerusalem after its desecration by Syrian King Antiochus IV more than 2,000 years ago. A big deal? Not to the study’s authors, who are Israeli emigres.

“We were sitting at an [American] Hanukkah party and looking at how crazy it is,” Einav, an economics professor at Stanford University who came to the United States in 1997, said about the gen­esis of the study. In Israel, he says, “it’s a holiday, but it’s not so special.”

By surveying American Jewish households, the authors found that “the correlation of having children at home with Hanukkah celebration is highest for reform Jews (who are most exposed to Christmas), followed by conservative Jews, and is lowest for orthodox Jews.”

In other words, the greater the “conversion threat” from an environment with more intermarriage and more people celebrating Christmas, the more likely Jewish parents are to sell “Oh Hanukkah” as an alternative to “O Tannenbaum.”

Using data from “a large grocery retail chain,” the study measured expenditures on “Jewish products” during Hanukkah. The result? According to the study, “individuals who live in larger Jewish communities . . . who are presumably less affected by the presence of Christmas, celebrate Hanukkah less intensively compared with how much they celebrate other Jewish holidays.”

Justin Moyer

Justin Moyer is the deputy editor of the Morning Mix.