What Celebrating Hanukkah on Three Continents Taught Me

Holidays can be festive, public affairs – but they can also be alienating, depending on where you live.

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I’m a first generation immigrant to the United States, and Hanukkah, more than anything, has embodied the difference between being Jewish here and the other places I’ve lived. More than anything, it’s made me acutely aware of the privileged position Jews occupy in American life.

I was born in London, and lived there for the first few years of my life. Both my parents were educators, and taught at a Jewish boarding school in Oxford. I don’t have any specific memories of celebrating Hanukkah there, but as my parents tell me, it was a familial affair. Public celebrations were scant, menorahs were lit at home and customs varied from family to family. What I learned about Hanukkah in England was only really relevant in contrast to what came after.

When I was three, my father was asked to head a then-small Jewish Day School in Hong Kong. My parents, recognizing the opportunity for an adventure, packed us up and flew us halfway across the world. We found a surprisingly tight-knit and self-contained Jewish community there. People often ask me how we got by in Hong Kong without ever having to learn Cantonese. The answer is that we never had to. We lived in something of an Anglo-Jewish bubble. Our social life was built around our school, synagogue and Jewish Community Center. All of our friends spoke English, and most were Jewish.

Most of them also showed up for the annual Hanukkah lighting ceremony in Hong Kong. I remember cramming into a school bus with my friends and riding through Hong Kong, all around the city, before finally convening at Hong Kong Park. When we arrived, music, dancing, food and a giant menorah, later lit by a giant flame, greeted us. As a child, everything about the ceremony seemed absolutely massive to me.

Erica Lyons, a Jewish reporter based out of Hong Kong, described 2011's annual ceremony as an incredible and ironic contrast to Hanukkah in the U.S. When she was a kid in New Jersey, celebrating the Festival of Lights was a private affair, drowned out by Christmas. In Hong Kong, she notes, “a debate about whether this celebration brings religion into the public sphere is noticeably absent. And there is no public Christmas lighting to compete with.” Maybe it was my British origin, or my arrival in the U.S. in 2001 – three decades after Lyons experienced the American holidays as a child – but the contrast between Hanukkah in Hong Kong and America struck me very differently.

While Hanukkah in Hong Kong appeared massive, there’s something humbling about the fact that year after year, the entire community assembled in one place. Conversely, Hanukkah in the United States is part of the national “holiday season.” While I admit my experience is contained to major East Coast cities, in department stores, office buildings and even the White House, Hanukkah is celebrated alongside Christmas and Kwanzaa.

While we experienced major culture shock after arriving in the U.S., what baffled my parents more than anything was Hanukkah's prominence in public life. Its symbols are everywhere; the holiday is referenced constantly on television and everybody – Jewish or otherwise – seems to know what it is all about. That wasn’t the case in England or Hong Kong, no matter how many times we lit that menorah in a public park.

My mom regularly points out that many American Jews take Hanukkah's mainstream status for granted, which makes sense given how ubiquitous it has become in the U.S. The private celebrations in England, and the singular, but still contained spectacle in Hong Kong throw the contrast into sharp focus.

And while for my family, the fact that Hanukkah was celebrated so publicly was cause for excitement, it should also compel some reflection. On one hand, we should celebrate the vibrancy and presence of the American Jewish community. Jews elsewhere in the Diaspora don't always enjoy this kind of status. On the other, we should be mindful of the cultures and faiths that don’t enjoy similar public support or recognition. Knowing what it’s like to sit on the sidelines while everybody seems to celebrate something else is an important lesson about how alienating public religion can be.

To offset that, read about Hinduism’s Pancha Ganapti, Buddhism's Bodhi Day, or the Humanist Association’s “HumanLight,” which also fall around Hanukkah time. Hanukkah's place should remind us of the many things that slip under the mainstream radar, as Jewish holidays do in most of the world.

Benjy Cannon is the National Student Board President of J Street U. He studies politics and philosophy at the University of Maryland, where he sits on the Hillel Board. Follow him on Twitter @benjycannon, or send him an email at benjycannon@gmail.com