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New December dilemma: early Chanukah

Sadie and Benjamin ParrisCHRISTMAS comes but once a year, on Dec. 25: not Nov. 29, not Dec. 28, but Dec. 25.

Chanukah also comes but once a year, on 25 Kislev: not 10 Kislev, not 21 Kislev, but 25 Kislev.

While Chanukah is fixed and unchanging according to Judaism’s lunar-based cycle, it’s quite another story on the secular-solar calendar.

This year, Jews throughout the world ushered in the first night of Chanukah on Wednesday, Dec. 1 — a mere six days after Thanksgiving.

Chanukah’s speedy arrival hinges on a supremely logical yet mathematically complex formula.

The Hebrew calendar “loses 11 days each year to the solar calendar (29.5 days x 12 months = 354 days vs. 365 days = -11),” Rabbi Raymond Zwerin explains in a brief e-mail.

Got that?

“In order to keep the seasons in sync, the Jewish calendar adds a full month (Two Adar, the month before Pesach) of 30 days to the calendar seven times in each 19-year period (11 x 19 =209 days lost vs. 30 x 7 = 210 +/- secular leap days), which keeps the lunar calendar in synch with the solar.”


“Next year, Chanukah will be 30-11 = 19 days later than this year, or Dec. 21, because next year” (meaning 2011, which is still 5771 on the Hebrew calendar) “is a Jewish leap year.”

In layman’s terms, this intricate system converts to an observable reality: the last day of Chanukah, Dec. 9, occurs 17 days in advance of Christmas.

Normally — but not always — the two holidays bump spiritual heads in closer proximity, often during the same week.

Jews attending public school celebrate Chanukah when Christians are gearing up for Christmas.

Although Jewish students are vastly outnumbered, their own holiday traditions — eight nights of lovely candle light — contribute a sense of pride, identity and joy amid blaring carols and artificial twinkle.

This year it’s going to be a little different for Jewish kids when Christmas reaches critical mass in public schools and the American culture at large.

Or will it?

Time clash

BEFORE the Intermountain Jewish News can complete an introductory statement about Chanukah’s precipitous arrival, Bobbie Parris interrupts.

“You think?”

Parris and her husband Jeff have four children in public school: Benjamin, 6, and Molly, 10, at High Plains Elementary; and Sadie, 15, and Joseph, 16, at Cherry Creek High. See Benjamin’s winning artwork in the IJN’s Coloring Contest

“Our family only celebrates Chanukah,” she says. “There’s no chance we’re going to put up a tree. There’s no conflict at all.

“But to be honest, it’s harder for our children because Chanukah arrived so early this year. By the time Christmas rolls around for the rest of the world, we’re not going to have anything going on.”

When the holidays are closer together, Jewish and Christian students are on winter break — but not this year.

“Right now our kids still have classes, homework, dance, sports,” says Parris, who belongs to BMH-BJ. “Logistically, it’s harder to enjoy Chanukah because they’re not on vacation.

“Then, when winter break arrives, Chanukah’s over and Christmas is in full bloom.”

Although Chanukah “is not a yontif” and there are no established methods of observance, Parris says candle lighting and blessings flow in her home on schedule.

“But it does seem like Chanukah is getting a bit ‘lost’ this year.”

Holiday spirit

CHERRY Creek High senior Zach Ettelman, the son of Tammy and Erwin Ettelman, says the longer-than-average separation between Chanukah and Christmas is both positive and negative.

“I truly believe this gives the Jewish people a chance to have their own holiday that in no way shares space with Christmas,” he says.

“On the other hand, when Chanukah happens closer to Christmas, Jewish people may feel more of a holiday spirit. You know, the snow and all that stuff.

“I’m ready for it,” says Zach, whose 13-year-old sister Audrey attends Campus Middle School.

“But it’s way too early.”

If Zach could tweak the inviolate Jewish calendar, he would place Chanukah near the end of December — not to mimic Christmas, but in order to ensure a less stressful environment.

“I go to public school,” he says of Cherry Creek’s winter break, which begins around Dec. 17. “I have tons of homework this week. Personally, it’s difficult.

“We’ll enjoy Chanukah — have our own Chanukah each night, see the extended family, light the menorah. But it’s not the same.”

Despite the negatives, one positive factor reigns.

Zach prefers it when Chanukah does not coincide with his sister Audrey’s birthday on Dec. 16.

“When that happens, she gets the spotlight,” he laughs.

Gift giving at the holidays

ERWIN Ettelman, a CPA who works out of his home, retrieves the phone from Zach and happily answers a few questions.

“If I was a kid, I’d like Chanukah to be around the same time as Christmas,” he admits. “Next year, Chanukah is scheduled to begin on Dec. 21 — and the year after that, it starts on Dec. 9.”

Ettelman agrees with Bobbie Parris that Chanukah, at least in the rabbinical context, is not the most popular or religious of Jewish holidays.

“If you’re going to rank the festivals, it’s definitely not number one,” he says.

“Unfortunately, some Jews regard Chanukah as the holiday that comes with gifts,” he says. “What’s the true meaning of Chanukah?”

Ettelman feels the Maccabbean revolt over King Antiochus IV and the miracle of burning oil deserves a broader expression of gratitude.

“I’ve wondered what would happen if I said to my family, we’re going to do something different,” he muses. “What if we passed on the gifts this year and gave our money to a place like The Children’s Hospital?”

The family already has a tradition of buying toys at Walmart and Target and dropping them off at Children’s.

But eliminating personal gifts completely?

“I don’t know how that would go over,” he says.

Despite the disparate challenges inherent in a holiday that arrives before its anticipated secular time, Ettelman is confident his brood will enjoy Chanukah as always.

“We’ll celebrate at Rodef Shalom, where we have a great rabbi and cantor,” he says.

“We’ll light the lights every evening on our own menorahs. We’ll pray together, play dreidel and savor being with family. It’s a lot of fun.

“Our house is very festive right now,” he says.

“But once Chanukah is over, we’re going to feel a void this year.”

Ettelman says his wife Tammy is planning a little extra gesture to rectify the psychic gap.

“We’re all going to open up something — I don’t know what, and it doesn’t really matter — so we don’t feel too deprived,” he says.

Chanukah and public school

SARA Goldberg, principal of Boulder’s Hebrew High, addresses the unusual Chanukah predicament facing Jewish students at public schools as a professional and mother.

“One of my daughters has expressed the same sentiments — there’s so much going at school; there’s not enough time to really celebrate Chanukah; when break finally comes, the whole thing’s over.”

In her role as a community professional, Goldberg has arranged for Boulder Hebrew High to observe Chanukah twice during the eight-day period.

Representatives from Shwayder Camp, Ranch Camp and Ramah in the Rockies put on a carnival at the school Wednesday, Dec. 1.

On Wednesday, Dec. 8, the last night of Chanukah, Hebrew High students will hold a collective candle lighting ceremony and recite blessings in unison.

“Still, they won’t be with their family, hearing and telling stories and eating great foods,” she says.

Goldberg is the mother of two daughters. Kayla, 21, attends CU, where she’s preparing for finals. Talia, 18, goes to New Vista High in Boulder.

“I don’t know if I’ll see Kayla during Chanukah because of finals,” Goldberg says. “I don’t even know if we’ll light candles together.

“The studying and extracurricular activities continue,” she says. “There’s no slowing down.

“I know the kids are definitely feeling that, and I know I feel it as a parent.”

“Chanukah,” reflects Goldberg, “will be a distant memory while we’re still hearing ‘Jingle Bells.’”

Oppositional forces aside, it’s possible to fan the embers of Chanukah throughout the Christmas season.

“We’ll go to the movies — where we bump into the entire Jewish community,” Goldberg says.

Parents need to help younger children “keep the conversation going” about Judaism.

“And remember Shabbat,” Goldberg says. “Shabbat is here for us every week.

“Go to synagogue. Light the candles. Make special food.

“Shabbat always comforts our children with the joy and warmth of their traditions.”

Andrea Jacobs

IJN Senior Writer |

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