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Published:December 9th, 2009 21:30 EST
Hanukkah in Japan

Hanukkah in Japan

By Geoff Dean

 I opened my e-mail as I do every morning, hoping for that message of acceptance of my novel for publication. Instead, it was the usual junk but with a difference.

 I was informed that "Twas two weeks before Christmas" by the Indianapolis Indians minor league baseball team and a great time for buying season tickets for next year. A lingerie company announced "The 12 Thongs of Christmas", as if I might want to wear one. A major department store opined about my "Christmas style" and a dubious watch offer claimed to be a "Great Christmas Gift". One message had the intriguing title that "All Women Really Want for Christmas is a Longer..." Oops, I better leave it at that. My point is that even my junk mail is beginning to look a lot like Christmas.

 I have nothing against Christmas but I couldn`t help but notice that there were no Hanukkah-tinged junk mailings. As I sat down to write this piece, the "background music" of my shopping street in suburban Tokyo kicked in, which since November has been constant Christmas music, and which is suitably loud to seep into my place of business and drive me nuts. How am I supposed to get in the mood for the Festival of Lights?

 One thing that I do every year at this time is decorate my English school with Hanukkah memorabilia. Near the entryway, I put out a hanukiyah (an eight plus one branched menorah used to commemorate the eight days in which the Temple`s menorah miraculously did not go out). On the table in the lobby, I laid out a number of dreidels (Hanukkah tops used for gambling games nowadays and in the traditional story, used in the original Hanukkah season to cover up for illegal Torah studying). The walls are decorated with posters of children eating latkes (oily potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (oilier jelly filled donuts), playing with dreidels, and, of course, lighting hanukiyah.

 The yearly display always draws a big response because it is unfamiliar to Japanese people (many American people, too, I imagine). Kids love to play with the dreidels (tops are a popular New Year`s activity in Japan). Young and old admire the candles displayed in the hanukiyah. And, invariably, several people say, "I didn`t know that people in America celebrated Christmas like this!" Oy Vey! One student even looked at a picture of Judas Macabbee (if you don`t know, look him up yourself-this is the Internet, you know!) and said, "I thought Santa Claus always wore red!"

 Still, in my Tokyo neighborhood, dreidel playing has become something of a mini-trend. Hanukkah has always had appeal outside the Jewish community, influencing people from George Washington, who drew inspiration from the holiday during the dark days of Valley Forge, to folk singer Woody Guthrie, who composed several Hanukkah songs, to Bob Marley, who found common cause with the Jews who "stood up for their rights." In fact, one survey that I read recently, stated that in America, for the first time, more non-Jews than Jews celebrate Hanukkah in their homes. (What survey? When? You obviously have me confused with a real journalist!)

 In Japan, Hanukkah, like just about anything Jewish, remains, however, an almost complete unknown. And attempting to celebrate the festival, like attempting to do anything Jewish in Japan, remains difficult. As the Rabbi of the Chabad House put it in a Japan Times interview, being an Orthodox Jew in Japan is "like climbing Mt. Everest." In other words, it dreadfully hard but some people can find enjoyment in it. (He, also, said in the interview that when he first applied for an apartment in Tokyo, he met the landlord in traditional Orthodox garb with long beard and large black hat. The landlord, to his surprise, welcomed him, saying "I love magicians!")

  Still, more than any other Jewish holiday, I hope that Hanukkah catches on in Japan. The message of Hanukkah, that people should stand up for their rights, that even a few banded together for a righteous purpose can defeat a mighty army, and that if we fight, the "lights" will not go out, is not Jewish, but universal. For Christians, also, Hanukkah coming just before the birth of Jesus, is critical as had the Greek King Antiochus succeeded in dismantling Judaism, Jesus` story would have turned out completely differently. And for a Japan, pressed hard by America on the Futenma Air Base issue, Afghanistan contributions, and the like, what better message could there be than "stand up for your rights!" Prime Minister Hatoyama, "A Miracle Happened There!" It can happen here, too!