‘Tis the season of giving … and getting … and sharing YouTube videos of your favorite holiday music videos be they earnest or comedic. We could probably create a phenomenal advent calendar of links gearing up to this season. Of course, we Jews would have to kick off a bit earlier in order to give ample running time until Chanukah, which begins the evening of the 8th this year. (Spoiler alert – Next year, the first night of Chanukah is November 27th – Erev Thanksgiving. Oy!)
A note about the spelling of Chanukah. My mother would have me believe that observant Jews spelled it with a ch because that was as close as we could get to the transliteration of that hairball-clearing sound. In her mind, spelling it with an h revealed that you were unable or unwilling to use the guttural, phlegmy sound in which case you must be a gentile or a godless Jew. Needless to say, I do not subscribe to this thinking, but old habits are chard to break, so I spell it with the ch. The fact is, no one has it right unless you’re writing it in Hebrew. That goes for the number of k’s or whether you add an h at the end.
My mother’s attitude towards spelling was just one of many examples of her intolerance for difference amongst Jews. Sadly, she is not the first or the last Jew to judge other Jews for how they connect to their Judaism. We are a common people divided. Sadly, division and in fighting has been part of history for ages. And here is my artful transition to Chanukah for the story of Chanukah is as much about in fighting as it is about assimilation and military victory.
“But what about miracles, Morah Devorah? Isn’t the story of Chanukah about the miracle of the oil? Isn’t that why we light candles and eat food fried in as much oil as our delicate Jewish digestive tracks can bear?”
Now, now, my inquisitive scholars, put that greasy potato pancake down gently on your plate making sure that it doesn’t slide off, and come sit on my lap (after you’ve wiped your hands of course). Let Morah Devorah tell you a few things I learned far too late in life about the actual story of Chanukah as told in The Book of Maccabees. Let me cradle you close to my bosom as I reveal the truth – that the story of Chanukah as you know is like Santa Claus, fictitious and hugely bloated.
Yes, the Greeks during the height of their intellectual and artistic enlightenment forced everyone to opt in to their ways or face brutal consequences. It is true that they destroyed the Holy Temple and sacrificed unclean animals there and required Jews to bow down to idols. There was horrific violence and humiliation of the highest degree, and the Jews did fight back and ultimately win a miraculous victory against our oppressors.
But what many do not know is that the Jews were already at each other’s throats before the destruction of the Holy Temple. Judah Maccabee was the celebrated leader of our victory, and he and his father Mattathias also served as jury against the Jews who chose to assimilate. The Hellenist Jews were adopting Greek ways – taking part in Greek art and culture while still worshipping as Jews. They wanted to be a part of the Greek culture much like so many Jews in the United States want to be a part of our national culture.
Mattathias was a Hasmonean Jew and saw the assimilated Jews as traitors – threatening the survival of our people. The Hasmoneans were more like Has-Been-eans to the Hellenists who saw nothing wrong with taking part in their national customs. When Mattathias refused to make a Pagan sacrifice, a Hellenist Jew offered to do so in his place. Mattathias was none too pleased, and made a sacrifice all right. He killed the Jew who would assimilate rather than stay true to God’s commandments.
Matthathias and his sons went into hiding and others followed. They built up a small army who eventually did fight the Syrians and win a truly miraculous victory against a mighty force. After that, the Holy Temple was restored and rededicated - thus the word Chanukah meaning dedication.
The Jews did keep the dedication of the Temple for 8 days after the victory over the Greeks. As soon as the Jews cleaned up the Temple, they immediately held a late observance of the 8-day festival of Sukkot, the most important festival of the day. The Book of Maccabees doesn’t even call the festival Chanukah. It was Sukkot B’kislev, December Sukkot. The next year, they celebrated their victory over the Greeks and the rededication of the Temple with another “late Sukkot.” We have celebrated Chanukah for 8 days ever since that time.
And one more thing, she said in a shocking, Columbo moment of realization. There was no oil. The bit about finding a day’s worth of oil to light the menorah for a miraculous 8 days? Yeah, that was added to the Talmud 600 years later. Some speculate that the oil part of the story was added when the Jews were living under Roman rule in Israel and Persian rule in Babylon and didn’t want to call attention to a holiday that celebrated military rebellion.
“Hey Shmuel! We can’t be teaching the yeladim about this uprising mishigas. We’ll get more than a potchke on the tuchus!”
“You’re right, Chaim. Let’s drink a little bourbon and doctor this story up a bit.”
“I’d love to, Shmuel, but I can’t do it right now. I forgot to pick up more oil for the house. I only have a day’s worth left, for chrissake. I’d rather face the Romans than my wife if I don’t get a refill.”
“Uch, I understand, Chaim. Wouldn’t it be a mechiah if your last bit of oil lasted at least another week?”
“Shmuel, you’re a genius!! I don’t care what everyone else says…”
In our house, we talk about the meaning of Chanukah as a time to embrace differences especially amongst people we call family – our immediate family, our ethnic family, our spiritual family, our national family, etc. Every candle we light, we acknowledge a group to which we belong, and we talk about the validation and strength and even the fun we have as a part of that group. We talk about how rich our lives are because of all the amazing people we know as Jews, New Jerseyans, North Americans, Italians, Brits, gays, etc. We celebrate Chanukah by telling the story, learning from it and finding meaning in it for us, which is what I think is the point and the beauty of all the Jewish stories. Oh, and we give presents, too.
It is a small, lonely world without our various families. We love you all!!