The eight days of Hanukah, which began at sundown last Sunday, is the celebration of a specific event in the history of the Jewish people. But the holiday's relative importance to other Jewish holidays and its role in the sprirtual life of present-day American Jew is looked at in different ways.
A survey of area rabbis indicates that the Hanukah celebration is not uniform by any means and that many Jews are critical of the transformation is has undergone in American society.
Rabbi Mordecai Schrelber is leading the B'nai B'rith Youth Organization's campaign this to take all signs of Christmas out of Hanukah and re-wstablish the festival of lights as a major Jewish holiday, celebrating Jewish awareness and the rebirth of the Jewish state.
"As Jews became more and more at home in American society they felt a need to come up with something matching them magic and excitement of Christmas. In the 1950s, some enterprising Jews came up with the idea of the Hanukah bush, which simply meant they put a christmas tree in their home and called it a Hanukah bush," he explains in the Shofar, a monthly newspaper the BBYO sends to 40,000 Jewish youth.
Later, "better meaning Jews . . . came up with the electric menorah" that many put in their windows, he said.
The BBYO is hoping Hanukah can be transformed into a holiday that not only celebrates the victory of the ancient Maccabees over the Greek-Syrian Empire, but also their present-day descendants, who brought about the rebirth of the state of Israel.
Rabbi Schreiber urged American Jews to realize what "the Maccabees realized, that more and more of their people were becoming assimilated." He also urged that Hanukah be considered a major Jewish holiday.
Rabbi Herman Waldman of Agudath Achim Congregation in north-west Washington disagrees: "We cannot decide to make a holiday major, because major Jewish holidays are thos prescribed in the Torah, such as the Sabbath, Yom Kippur and Pass-over to name a few. the event is very important, but we cannot make it into a major holidya."
In a special Hanukah massage to his congregation, Rabbi Lewis A. Weintraub of Temple Irael in Silver Spring wrote. "Ever since the establishment of the state of Israel, the festival of hanukah has acquired a special timeliness and relevance such as it had not had in generations and centuries." He said the Hanukah story invite comparison.
"In both instances the threat of outside domination called forth self-sacrificing deeds on the part of the people in general and heroie leadership on the part . . . of Israel. In both instances, the military strength and the numbers of the enemy far exceeded those of our own people, and in both instances the people of Israel emerged victorious," he said.
Temple Israel is celebrating its 25th anniversary tonight and Rabbi Wintraub will liken the story of teh Maccabees to the story of those who founded the Silver Spring congregation.
Tonight at Congregation Olam Tikvah in Fairfax. Rabbi Itzhaq Klirs will urge that Hanukah be a "general festival (that) should be celebrated by all people. If teh people of Judea (would not have won their religion, there would not be Christainity or Islam. This is a historuc fact. The word Hanukah means "rededicate." All men should rededicate themselves tothe free spirit of this country."
Other area rabbis express discofort with diluting Hanukah, or mixing it with other celebrations.
"Synogogue worship is very introspective," said Rabbi Sheldon E. Elster of Agudas Achim in Alexandria. "Jewish holidays are basiscally celebrated in the home. The more ritualistically observant Jews are, the less tinseled observance you will find," he said.
Asked if he felt the three-hou celebration at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington on Montrose Road in Rockville held last Sunday contributed to the mixing of Hanukah with Christmas, he said, "I think it's a poignant point you make here. I think it can have that effect.
"They would take strong issue with me. Strong is a mild work. But I don't see how it can have any other effect." He added that since "Hanukah demands as little as it does," Hanukah "lends itself to this outside celebration."
Rabbi Ian L. Wolk at Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase said he wished both Christians and Jews would "stop desecrating either holiday."
President Anwar Sadat's trip to Jerusalem last month to visit Israeli Prime Minister Menahem Begin apparently is having an effect on this year's perception of the meaning of Hanukah.
"Just as Sadat was sensitive not to descreate the Sabbath, jews should be sensitive to the Christians and not desecrate Christmas," said Rabbi Tzv-Porath of Ohr Kodesh Congregation in Chevy Chase. "If Hanukah comes, they should observe that fully and completely and leave Christmas to the Christians," he added.
"Hanukah is a time for refleftion on miracles," said Rabbi Arnold Fink of Beth Ei Hebrew Congregation in Alexandria, referring to the Maccabean "miracle" when on oil lamp that contained enough oil lamp that contained enough oil for one day burned for eight days, following the military victory. That is why Jews light candles of the menorah for eight days at Hanukah.
Calling the Sadat trip a "miracle." Rabbi Fink said the "miracle of peace in the Middle East may not be far around the corner. Israel's existence . . . seems to be more firmly established this year than here-tofore." Yonight he will urge his congregation to celebrate Hanukah by praying for peace.
Rabbi Rubin Lanman, of Har TZon Congregation in Silver Spring, said that (Hanukah would not be as heavyily stressed as it is today in the United States if it did not coincide with Christmas and the emphasis in society. There is anattempt to make children feel thea they're not missing anything by not having Christmas.
"I don't know if it's necessasrily a negative thing, either, unless you see it as a competitive thing," he added.
Rabbi Bernard Mehlman of Temple Micah in southwest said he would like his congregation to consider a different aspect of the Hanukah message:
"Religious freedom is a precious and vital aspect of a serious religion. The Maccabean effort was an effor to throw off a form of autocracy that would have ultimately snuffed out the would have ultimately snuffed out the life of any religion. That is the message, that all men have the God given right to practive their religion in the form that they understand for themselves. Any tyrant that attempts to snuff that out, should be overthrown.
"The lines of connection I see (between 2,000 years ago and today) is the Communist tyrant in Russia, threatening the right of people to practice their religion.