WASHINGTON (RNS) Growing up in the only Jewish family in my New Jersey neighborhood, I always felt left out at Christmas. Our house alone lacked decorative lights, wreaths, and reindeer. Instead, we had a small menorah which, even when all nine candles were lit on the last night of Hanukkah, cast a modest light.
At school, we sang Christmas carols and the town’s center boasted a glowing tree. While I enjoyed watching my friends unwrap their gifts on Christmas morning, I was keenly aware that their holiday was unrelated to mine. While they were blessing the birth of a new faith, we were celebrating the survival of the Jewish people from spiritual annihilation.
I eventually moved to Israel where, each December, Hanukkah hymns jam the airwaves and Dec. 25 — unless it falls on the Sabbath — is a regular work day. Still, Israel has the only growing Christian community in the Middle East and, on Christmas, the country's churches are packed. Near my home in Jerusalem, the road to Bethlehem teems with pilgrims, their path illuminated by festive lights.
So imagine my surprise when, decades later, I returned to America and found a similarly inclusive spirit. Menorahs and Christmas trees now stand side by side in public spaces. Storefronts wish all a Merry Christmas and a Happy Hanukkah. The president holds a gala Hanukkah reception in the White House while, outside the White House gates, a crane hoists a rabbi to light towering candles.
But such common displays of joy are more than ornaments. Christmas is intrinsically linked to the story of Hanukkah.
Hanukkah recounts the struggle of Mattityahu (Matthew), a Jewish leader who lived 2,170 years ago in the land of Israel. At the time, the country was under the rule of a brutal empire forcing the Jews to adopt its pagan rites. Mattityahu realized that the fate of the Jewish people, their faith and their civilization, was at stake.
He and his five sons — the Maccabees — rose up in revolt and regained ancient Israel's independence. They rededicated the Temple in Jerusalem — Hanukkah in Hebrew means "rededication" — and reaffirmed Jewish values.
A century and a half later, according to Christian tradition, a child was born to a Jewish family in the land of Israel, in Bethlehem. He received a Jewish education and was reared on biblical values. Those hallowed ideas survived because the Maccabees fought so selflessly to preserve them.
Those same concepts helped form the foundations of our civilization. They inspired America’s Founding Fathers, and stir us still to protect human dignity. "If the Maccabees had not triumphed, world history would have developed very differently," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said. "In standing up for their independence, the Jews of antiquity defended values that were important for all mankind."
Today, as in the Maccabees’ time, Israel upholds those values. But Israel does not stand alone. “These are not simply American or Western values,” President Obama recently told the United Nations, “they are universal values. … Freedom and self-determination are not unique to one culture.”
The Maccabees would not have agreed more.
This holiday season, whether we and our families gather around a menorah or a tree — and are joined, perhaps, by our Muslim and Buddhist friends — we celebrate our freedom to believe. We rejoice in the values for which our forefathers fought and passed down for centuries. The lights that illuminate our homes burn bright for all of humanity.
(Michael Oren is Israel's ambassador to the United States.)
KRE/AMB END OREN