"The whole world is a very narrow bridge," goes the Chassidic saying and song, "and the essence is not to be afraid." I've always thought that the statement itself sounds like it ought to be more profound than I can figure out. Maybe my childhood fear of heights-and especially of walking across bridges-played into my fascination with this proverbial offering, but it strikes me as relevant to the upcoming season of Chanukkah.
It has been heartening to me to see Jews more and more comfortable being themselves in spite of our minority status. We don't hear much about people changing their names, undergoing elective surgery or nominally converting to other religions just to fit in. Jewish culture is not only mainstream, it isn't even mysterious to others any more. Only at one time of the year does our anxiety skyrocket: the Christmas season.
Surrounded by an abundance of holly and evergreens, assaulted by consumer opportunities and subliminally bathed in "seasonal music," Jewish individuals and Jewish organizations go on high alert. For 47 weeks a year, identity theft involves bank accounts and credit cards; between Thanksgiving and the New Year it seems to be a function of spruce trees and Santa. Acknowledging that there is something pleasurable about all of the fa-la-la and merry-ness is considered almost treasonous.
In no circumstances is this anxiety more pronounced than the ones we face this year when Christmas occurs in the middle of Chanukkah. Most years we console ourselves that Chanukkah boasts its own week. With the first candle on December 20, there is no avoiding the tide of preparations and the afterglow that most of America will experience. We stand at risk of "losing" Chanukkah altogether!
The solution that will be proposed by many will be to walk the very narrow bridge that Chanukkah provides, leading from December 20 to December 28. By paying close attention to your footing and looking neither right nor left, they will say, you will safely traverse the season without being afraid. I'd like to suggest that this approach is all nonsense.
Just as walking through the supermarket during Pesach will not infect you with chametz, and just as visiting Mexico will not make you forget English, navigating your normal life during Christmas will not compromise your Jewishness - nor the Jewishness of the children around you. Our "bridge" through the world is only as narrow as we imagine it; the wide superhighwayof a secure and fearless Jewish self-awareness will lead us to think, "How lovely that others have Christmas to take the place of what they miss by not having Chanukkah.
Maybe the Chassidic saying isn't so profound after all. It reinforces a notion that the generation of young adults and children find alien, that there is something threatening in differences. So don't take offense when someone offers you a cheerful holiday greeting that is not your own, and don't steer widearound the big tree in the shopping mall lest it proselytize you. Just have a very happy and meaningful Chanukkah and enjoy the fact that December 25 is a bonus this year...Rosh Chodesh begins!!