First, there is this question: is it Chanukah with a C, or Hanukah with an H (and is there an extra K in there somewhere)?
I’m sure a scholar of Aramaic could answer definitively, but either way, it is that weird Jewish holiday that comes in December that is not Christmas, but sometimes gets celebrated that way.
Chanukah is what’s known as a minor Jewish holy day, not nearly as important as Rosh Hashanah or Passover. It celebrates, so the story goes, a miracle when the oil lamp above the sacred ark kept going for eight days instead of burning out in one day, leaving the Temple in darkness. The story is multi-layered, as most Old Testament tales are, with a lot of rabbis weighing in on the history of the Jews to say what is or what isn’t so. You can get some sense of that from Wikipedia’s entry here.
In places with large Jewish populations, Chanukah often vies in importance with Christmas (much to the rabbis' distress). Growing up, my own family gave short shrift to Chanukah, which I write about here.
In Elk Grove, the Jewish population, while not insignificant -- yes, really! - -is dispersed, both in location and in affiliation. There is no community center or temple here that can be the focus for celebrations of Chanukah.
A couple of years ago, some of us got together with one of the Sacramento synagogues and threw a Chanukah party here in Elk Grove, in Del Webb’s social hall. We decorated and served latkes and played games and sang in the hope that it would be the beginning of a Jewish community in Elk Grove. It wasn’t.
So now, those of us in Elk Grove who pay attention to Chanukah do so on our own.
I thought perhaps we weren’t entirely forgotten, however, as the powers that market holidays would never miss an opportunity to make what in the Holy Land is called a shekel. In years past, offered an excellent selection of Chanukah decor. This year, nada. Not even a box of candles for the menorah. , which also used to have a Chanukah display, was offering only small rubber ducks wearing yarmulkes, and some dreidels.
I thought to do a tour of the likely places to buy Chanukah goods so I could advise you, but I lost heart after finding nothing at and only a small table with the sparest of wares -- over by the onions -- at the .
While I was at it, I kept an eye out for Kwanzaa memorabilia too. After all, the Elk Grove African-American population is, according to the latest census figures, disproportionately large. But no, Kwanzaa too has no presence here.
I’m not sure why it bothers me so much that Christmas is the only holiday being acknowledged in Elk Grove, but I suspect it has something to do with the concepts of inclusion and exclusion. Growing up Jewish, you learn how to be the odd person out gracefully, if not graciously. You are always The Other, and if you have never been in that position, you don’t know how incredibly isolating it can feel. When I saw the significant Chanukah displays at Home Goods several years ago, I felt -- well, validated is the only word for it. And now I feel, yes, invalidated.
I know what the arguments are. What I see as yet another missed opportunity for retail merchants in Elk Grove, they probably see as business prudence. They have not stocked merchandise that might not get sold because there might not be customers for it. Those customers, however, are still buying the merchandise; it’s just that they’re traveling into Sacramento to do so. Once again, then, Sacramento will get the tax benefits, and Elk Grove will be left with much of the pollution from all that driving to and fro.
In the end, I had a latke party for some friends on the first night of Chanukah. I lit the candle from the box I bought at the Nugget, said the prayer and translated it for my guests: Blessed art Thou, oh Lord our God, King of the universe who has sanctified us with His commandments and commands us to kindle the Chanukah lights.
Even in Elk Grove.