Opinion: I have questions about the New York Times’ ‘Saying Goodbye to Chanukah’

Throughout her life, she has never observed any Jewish holidays.

By Pamela Paresky, JNS

I have questions about the New York Times’ parenting article, “Saying Goodbye to Hanukkah,” published on Dec. 4, 2020.

The piece was written by children’s book author Sarah Prager, a self-described non-Jewish woman whose Jewish father and Catholic mother raised her Unitarian.

Throughout her life, she has never observed any Jewish holidays. She recounts how she (like the rest of her extended family) has chosen not to continue her family’s holiday tradition of eating latkes, lighting a menorah on Chanukah, reciting Hebrew prayers (which, as she explains in her piece, she experienced as meaningless) and decorating their Christmas tree with Jewish symbols.

She and her non-Jewish wife and their two non-Jewish children, she writes, will not be celebrating Chanukah — only Christmas and Easter (though in a secular way), because that’s what her extended family celebrates.

I’m curious about the thinking that went into publishing that piece. I’m not offended by someone choosing not to celebrate a holiday from my religious tradition. And I’m not offended that the opinion was published. I am a fan of publishing controversial opinions. I just don’t get it. I need help understanding what important insight about this Jewish holiday, or about giving it up, warranted an article in the venerable New York Times.

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Given the ideological leanings at the paper, I could almost understand the reasoning if the thesis of the piece had been about treating Chanukah less as a religious observance than a form of what’s now called cultural or religious “appropriation” (the adoption of elements of a minority’s culture by members of a more dominant group).

This particular appropriation doesn’t bother me. As long as it is done with a respectful intention, it’s fine with me for non-Jewish people (whether or not they have Jewish family members) to use Jewish stars on their Christmas trees, eat latkes, light menorahs or even say Hebrew prayers without understanding them or finding them meaningful. But strictly speaking, that is not a religious observance, even if it feels less “secular” than the other ways in which a person celebrates the holidays.

More to the point, it strikes me that if a writer had pitched an identical piece that substituted any other non-Christian religion for Judaism, it would have been received differently by the Times’ editors.

Imagine, for example, if the piece had revolved around a non-Hindu woman who was raised Unitarian by her Hindu father and Catholic mother and never celebrated any Hindu holidays.

As a child, her family’s holiday traditions included, among other things, eating vegetable pakoras, lighting the oil lamps used in celebrating Diwali and decorating her family’s Christmas tree with images of Ganesha. Would the Times have thought she had the standing to write a piece about her choice not to celebrate Diwali with her two non-Hindu children and her ex-Catholic wife? And would the paper have published such a piece, titling it “Saying Goodbye to Diwali”?

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If the answer is yes to both, then, although I still don’t understand the thinking, I have no problem with the choice to publish “Saying Goodbye to Hanukkah.” I suspect, however, that had such an alternate piece been suggested, it would have immediately been rejected as absurd. And that is what concerns me. A paper that is exquisitely sensitive to indignities suffered by people of almost every non-majority background is oddly insensitive to people from a particular one.

It’s not that I think that Jews (or anyone else) need to be treated with kid gloves. It’s a question of a double standard. When The New York Times treats Jews with less sensitivity than it treats members of other minority groups, it sends a message that there is something about Jews that is less deserving of concern and care.

Too easily, this double standard can descend toward anti-Semitism—something the Times can have trouble even recognizing. So I have questions.

I hope the paper of record has them, too.

Pamela Paresky, Ph.D., is a writer for “Psychology Today,” author of “A Year of Kindness” and was the chief researcher and in-house editor for the New York Times bestseller, “The Coddling of the American Mind.” She serves as Visiting Senior Research Associate at the University of Chicago’s Stevanovich Institute on the Formation of Knowledge and Senior Scholar at the Network Contagion Research Institute, where she researches extremism and anti-Semitism. Follow her on Twitter @PamelaParesky.

This article was first published by the Jewish Journal.