RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Hanukkah begins tonight. For many Jews it can seem hard for the candles of the menorah to compete with the bright lights of Christmas. Commentator Amy Klein has experienced the holiday differently.
AMY KLEIN: When I was growing up, December was for Hanukkah. No one I knew celebrated Christmas, and I mean no one. I grew up in Brooklyn, and almost all my relatives, friends, teachers, and even acquaintances were Orthodox Jews.
Like most families on the block, we placed our menorahs in the front window. We said the blessings, sang Hebrew songs and played dreidl. We got Hanukkah gelt, money, not presents like other kids. Presents are for Christmas, not Hanukkah, my father insisted.
That's how Hanukkah was in America, even in the recesses of religious Brooklyn, still defined by what it was not, not Christmas. And that's why my move to Israel was so refreshing. In Israel, Rosh Hashanah, Sukkoth, Passover and Hanukkah are national holidays. Schools are closed and often businesses are too.
By early December, every kiosk and supermarket presented cardboard boxes of fresh, sumptuous doughnuts for Hanukkah, sufganiyot with jelly or cream or caramel or chocolate, gushing out like a geyser, fried, like potato latkes, to celebrate the miracle of the oil that lasted for eight days.
It was so different from America, where despite all the politically correct inclusiveness, holiday means Christmas, and Hanukkah is relegated to being not that holiday.
Then I moved back to the U.S. Beginning with Thanksgiving, the radio drives me crazy with Christmas songs. All people want to do is shop, shop, shop. After seven years in Israel, the sight of so many stores and material goods is overwhelming. Okay, so it's not really the shopping that bothers me, but the sensation that there's a giant party to which everyone but me is invited.
I'm no longer in Brooklyn solely among Orthodox Jews. So now I see how the other half lives. There are office holiday parties and media holiday parties and friends' holiday parties, all with giant evergreens and mistletoe. Sure, there's a table with a lonely little menorah and plastic dreidls, but it's off to the side, almost invisible, dwarfed by the glittering ornaments and lights hanging from the tree. Christmas is everywhere, and Hanukkah is not that holiday.
So I've had to learn not to let Hanukkah be pushed off to the side of the dance floor. I make huge Hanukkah parties where people bring grab bag prizes and eat latkes and doughnuts. I light the menorah each night with friends and sing the jaunty tunes of childhood. And I realized it's different this time in America. I revel in my Hanukkah choice because I know that halfway around the world, come December people are celebrating Hanukkah like there's no other holiday.
Because there Hanukkah is the only holiday there is.
MONTAGNE: Amy Klein writes for the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles. Her commentary was adapted from her essay in the book, "How to Spell Hanukkah and Other Holiday Dilemmas."