Though considered a minor festivity among the Jewish traditions, Chanukah (The Feast of Dedication) has a special place in the hearts of the Jews. Through the poem “Chanukah Lights Tonight”, Steven Schneider demonstrates the importance of the feast; how it brings people together, reminding them of their past childhood experiences. On one side, Steve demonstrates the similarity of Chanukah to Christmas and, on another, demonstrates the lifelong contradictions between the two.
The main idea of “Chanukah Lights Tonight” is to explain what the festivity is all about. Diverse reasons may have brought this about; maybe because of the misunderstanding that outsiders may have about the feast, showing love for one’s roots, comparing Chanukah with Christmas, among others. Steven is part of this group that celebrates for eight days. He introduces the poem by saying, “Our annual prairie Chanukah party.” According to the Jewish traditions, the Feast of Dedication, popularly known as Hanukkah or the Festival of Lights, was placed to commemorate the work of the Maccabean brothers (Goodman). The day is special because of Yahweh’s miracles on that day. The temple was always supposed to have light from candles, as described in the Torah (the laws given to Moses). After the Maccabean brothers successfully led a revolt against the Seleucid Empire, which had invaded Jerusalem and taken over the temple, they rededicated the place of worship.
There was no oil left to light the candles for the next eight days required to prepare it, per those days. They made a prayer to God to keep the fire burning. Miraculously, the candles never went off until the oil was ready, eight days after. Steven hints at this when he talks about “The smell of oil is in the air” (Line 11). As a representation of what happened on that day, the festivity requires that candles be lit all the time for eight days. Schneider describes this in the 6th line by writing, “The candles flicker in the window.”
Though there are no delis in the neighborhood, as Steve puts it, the mention of the available food in the festival, “latkes, kugel, cherry blintzes,” portrays a special dedication to the feast. First, it shows that they are in a far country but still observe the feast. Second, cooking the special Jewish meals in a foreign land depicts the hard work they put to make it a success. Also, the mention of Christmas, “the neighbors’ Christmas lights” (Line 9), posits that they are surrounded by many people who do not observe the Chanukah feast but rather Christmas.
Additionally, the Feast of Lights is seasoned by playing games. Generally, adults occasionally participate in playing games. However, the feast is like a time machine that takes grown-up Jews back to their childhood experience. In the second last stanza, Steven observes this when he says, “We drift off to childhood.” The celebration mood is in the air during this time and is often characterized by dancing to Jewish tunes. In “Chanukah Lights Tonight”, the author hints at this by narrating what the friends from neighboring towns would do when they come. In (Lines 3,4,5), Schneider says, “Friends arrive from nearby towns and dance the twist to “Chanukah Lights Tonight, spin like a dreidel to a klezmer hit.”
Comparison and contrast come out clearly in the poem “Chanukah Lights Tonight.” Hanukkah and Christmas are religious functions for Jews and Christians, respectively. They both are characterized by coming together and enjoying each other’s company. It is a norm for Christian families and neighbors to visit each other, enjoying meals and drinks. This is the same with Chanukah. Steven describes in his poem by writing, “Friends arrive from nearby towns” (line 3). In addition, Schneider describes this Feast of Lights as a time when they welcome the Messiah into the home for the party. On Christmas day, Children wait for Santa to come in and bring gifts. In comparison, the author and the people in the party are waiting for the Messiah to come through the door and be part of the celebration.
According to what is described by Steven in the “Chanukah Lights Tonight,” Chanukah is different from Christmas. He is contrasting the two, though subtly. “Outside, ponderosa pines are tied in red bows” (Line 7) portrays Steve as one who sees the difference. In many Christian cultures, the pine trees are tied in red bows as a signature of Christmas. In the above line, it suggests that how Christians handle Christmas is different from how Jews handle Chanukah. The latter’s celebration involves staying in the house, cooking, eating, playing games, dancing, and enjoying each other’s company. On the contrary, Christians spend most of the time preparing pine trees and lighting their homesteads ready for the Christmas celebration.
Christian traditions posit that Christmas signifies the birth of Jesus Christ. In most churches, the eve of Christmas is symbolic. A woman bears a child and names Him Jesus, the savior of the World. At Christmas, the savior is still a toddler. In contrast, Chanukah’s Messiah, a Hebrew name for a savior, seemingly is a grown-up. Line 4 in the last stanza, Steve says. “waiting for the Messiah to knock.” Symbolically, they are waiting for an adult Messiah to come and join them in the party. Though many scholars agree that Christianity and Judaism hold the same beliefs and practices, Schneider clearly puts the difference between the two in the poem. He is doing this intentionally to clear the doubts that have been piling around this debate.
Besides, Chanukah Lights Tonight portray a Messiah who has reached the age of choosing. Steven writes, “wanting to know if he can join the party”(Line 20). The Messiah represented here contrasts with the savior of Christians. He is a toddler at the mercy of the parents and other guardians and can only be functional by their constant care.
Steven Schneider uses sarcasm to depict how two distinct festivities can occur in the vicinity. In the starting line of the second stanza, Steven rather sarcastically portrays the need for more light in the room when he says, “Flickering candles.” The outside experience is different. Christmas lights are so bright that it is only when one “squints” he can see the light from the neighbors’ homesteads. He uses metaphors to compare them with the “Omaha Skylines.” Here are a group of Jews devoted to keeping the Feast of Lights in a foreign land, yet it is impossible to ignore the fact that there are outsiders who hold fast to another tradition.
Later in the poem, he says, “Inside, we try to sweep the darkness out.” Steven uses figurative language to show how practically it is hard to keep up with all that is going in and around the homestead. Here, they are in a room that, surprisingly, only candles are lit for the whole eight days. Lighting may not be as sufficient as of those of the neighbors’.
Additionally, Steven introduces flashbacks in the poem “Chanukah Lights Tonight.” When dancing, they recount their lives growing up. Much of their time and money was spent on baseball cards and, as he puts it, “cream sodas and potato knishes.” He is portraying how different priorities in life can be. Looking outside, he is surrounded by what may be he would have enjoyed back in his childhood days. When he is penning the poem, he has a different outlook. His priorities now focus on the real identity of his people. As an adult, he must choose to propagate the Chanukah traditions despite being in a foreign land.
Steven Schneider’s “Chanukah Lights Tonight” narrates a tradition that the Jews hold dear. Throughout generations, it has been passed, and its relevance taught to all that are born in this lineage. Steven subtly has compared the festivity with the popular Christian Christmas. At one point, he agrees with the facets that connect both. Through his poem, he narrates how cherished the tradition is to the point of perpetuating it in a seemingly foreign and “hostile environment.” However, it is inevitable to weigh the festivity against the popular Christmas. Sarcastically, Steven brings out the differences for the readers to mark the distinction between. As one reads, the question that arises is, how far can Steve and his friends keep up?
Student’s Name: Illya Nestor