Hanukkah is really a minor Holiday in the Jewish religion. Think of it as really a rememberance of history than a truly religious/spritual experience.
So, why does everyone know about it? Because it happens during Christmas, the biggest gentile holiday of the year. To cantilever it, Jews, especially American Jews, express themlelves by, making Hanukkah bigger than it really is. If Christians get one present (for one day) then Jews get 8 presents for the eight days. Lights in the windows, holiday cards, there are even Hanukkah albums! All this for a Holiday that is not mentioned in the Torah (the Old Testament).
What’s going on here? Well, it’s something called the New Jew.
Jews, while a religion, are also a part of a nation. Just like the French are from France and the Italians are from Italy, Jews are a nation onto themselves. And just like any nation, Jewish people needed some structure so it was the religion that provided it: rules and customs that provided order to the people.
Many Jews today (myself included) appreciate the traditions and the sense of connectedness with other Jews, but don’t want to be tied up in the rhetoric of the religion. We have our traditions, celbrating Hanukkah, fasting for Yom Kippur, having the passover seder, but find them rooted not in some spirituality but more in a connectedness with our fellow people.
This is at the root of the New Jew. It’s not a sense of religiousity but more of wanting to be part of a culture.
While this isn’t very new (Jews have been a secular bunch for a while), there are now a lot of outlets for this.
Heeb is a new magazine started by a graduate of the Harvard Divinity school. With funding from Steven Spielberg, amongst others, he has created a terrific look at the at the New Jew.
The New York Times even noticed it. They recent wrote an article about Hipster Hanukkah , talking about cool Hanukkah parties being thrown by Perry Farrell (Jane’s addiciton, yes he’s Jewish).
I believe these things are part of a wave that is just beginning to brew.