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December 9, 2020 5:47 am

‘Goodbye to Hanukkah’ New York Times Author Distances Herself as Criticism Mounts

avatar by Ira Stoll


A taxi passes by in front of The New York Times head office, Feb. 7, 2013. Photo: Reuters / Carlo Allegri / File.

The author of the “Goodbye to HanukkahNew York Times article is backing away from it as criticism mounts.

Sarah Prager provoked ire with her published account of how she had decided not to transmit to her children her family’s tradition of celebrating the holiday.

In a Twitter thread published Monday, December 7, after a backlash against the article, Prager wrote, “If I had known it would cause pain for some I may have reconsidered. I did not say there was anything bad about Hanukkah or Judaism, simply that they aren’t ultimately a fit for my non-religious family even though I celebrated as a child.”

Meanwhile, negative reaction to the article — and to the New York Times’ decision to publish it — grew.

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“What editor decided that this was an appropriate piece to mark the week of Hanukkah? It’s offensive,” said Deborah Lipstadt, a professor at Emory and an authority on antisemitism.

The editor in chief of the Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg, tweeted initially that there was a small chance the Times article was a parody. In a follow-up tweet, Goldberg quoted the article’s sentence that said, “My kids … won’t learn the prayer that begins Baruch atah Adonai, sacred words that are nonetheless empty to them.” Said Goldberg: “I have questions about this  @nytimes piece, including: How could these words be empty to a person who is not even taught they exist?”

The executive director of Boston’s Jewish Community Relations Council, Jeremy Burton, tweeted, “Can we just own that @nytimes is America’s preeminent Jewish media platform and yet, at the same time, one of the most consistent purveyors of subtle (and not so subtle) antisemitism for purposes of clickbait?”

In Tablet, Liel Leibovitz called the Times piece “astonishing,” observing that the newspaper “rarely misses an opportunity to defend its godless dogmas.”

Wrote Leibovitz, “Prager decided to solve her core identity problem by draining her Judaism of its life-force and using it instead as a puppet in the service of the only virtues that her caste recognizes. … She and her editors were smart enough to attack not Christian displays of faith but Jewish ones, which, coming from a Jew, sounds like progress, away from religion’s benighted mists and towards the great light of our intersectional sun. … You’ll see how wildly dangerous their proposition truly is: In the vision of the new left, American Jews are to be tasked with turning ourselves into the flag-bearers of a war not just on Christmas but on religion in general.”

What’s ironic about the Times piece, probably unintentionally, is that the holiday of Hanukkah itself is a celebration in part of Jews who defended their distinct religious identity against the pressure of the dominant Greeks. For someone to greet the holiday by surrendering to the dominant culture — “my kids will celebrate Santa and the Easter Bunny,” Prager writes — is less an abandonment of Hanukkah than a reenactment of it, with Prager on the enemy side. While Prager professes, in the abstract, to “respect the incredible value of keeping traditions alive, especially those that centuries of persecution have sought to erase,” this seems to be one where actions speak louder than words.

It is the latest in a long string of anti-Hanukkah pieces in the New York Times. In the Jewish Week, Andrew Silow-Carroll mentioned two: “a snarky 2010 piece by novelist Howard Jacobson saying Hanukkah didn’t feel authentically Jewish because its heroes are soldiers and religious zealots — perhaps the quintessential critique of a Jewish tradition by a secular Jewish intellectual. Another novelist, Michael David Lukas, picked up on this theme in 2018, calling Hanukkah ‘an eight-night-long celebration of religious fundamentalism and violence.’”

In 2009, Times columnist David Brooks wrote that the Maccabees were “not the last bunch of angry, bearded religious guys to win an insurgency campaign against a great power in the Middle East, but they may have been among the first. They retook Jerusalem in 164 BC and rededicated the temple. Their regime quickly became corrupt, brutal, and reactionary. The concept of reform had been discredited by the Hellenizing extremists. Practice stagnated. Scholarship withered. The Maccabees became religious oppressors themselves, fatefully inviting the Romans into Jerusalem.”

And in a notorious 1978 Times article, “Christmas Comes to a Jewish Home,” Anne Roiphe explained, “The Hanukkah story always irritated me.” She wrote, “There has always been in my house a Christmas, no longer any seders, no more High Holy Days at the temple, no masses, just Christmas, a sacred event in our family life.”

Cynthia Ozick responded to that one in the Times by writing, “My Jewish conviction derives not from what Mrs. Roiphe repeatedly calls ‘the ghetto,’ but from the Voice at Sinai. And conviction, for Jews, is always the product of intellectual passion combined with homely domestic rite.”

Ira Stoll was managing editor of The Forward and North American editor of The Jerusalem Post. His media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here.

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