In Essays

Hanukkah | A Festival of Lights… or Something

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

Hanukkah is that Jewish Christmas with the candles on the menorah, commemorating a time when some oil lasted for eight days. And Adam Sandler has a song about it.

Or something.

With that mainstream read on the holiday, Hanukkah sounds a bit like a dud compared to the commercial insanity of modern-day Christmas. No surprise, but if you do a little digging into the holiday, you find out quite quickly that it’s a fascinating holiday both because of the history of Hanukkah and the story of Hanukkah in the Book of Maccabees.

First Book of Maccabees

The Books of the Maccabees are comprised of two stories, neither of which are in the Torah. That’s because the Maccabean revolt happened after the Torah was written. God can make some oil last for eight days, but can’t quite turn back time. Google tells me, however, that it is mentioned in the New Testament as a “Feast of Dedication” that Jesus attends.

My, what a nice Jewish boy he was.

Here’s your CliffNotes of the first book, taking place between 175 BCE and 134 BCE. Basically, Antiochus is a Greek ruler who outlaws the Jewish religion and customs. 

The Maccabee family isn’t down with that, so they lead a violent revolt. Skipping ahead, they’re able to reclaim the Second Temple in Jerusalem and rededicate it. Hanukkah itself means “dedication” or “rededication.”

So what’s with the menorah and candles? 

The rabbis made it up. 

That’s not a controversial thing to say, by the way. It’s just what it is. They didn’t like the idea of a military revolt being at the heart of the story, even if it was to stick up for Jews. So, they invented a new ending that repositions God as the hero of the story––a vessel of oil that lasts for eight days in the rededicated Temple because of a miracle.

Second Book of Maccabees

God makes a comeback in the Second Book of Maccabees. Whereas the first book features very little of the divine, God abounds in the second book. This book is written with the Hellenistic Jewish Diaspora in mind, namely those living in Greek-speaking Egypt. (Although originally written in Hebrew, the text was lost and only the Greek translation survived at first.)

The second book also differs by challenging the supposed inevitably of the Maccabean revolt in the first book and its basis around a culture clash. Here, money and misguided Greek leaders who led the desecration of the Temple are the predominant villains.

On top of that, you’ve got a focus on religious martyrdom in this book. Elazar and Hannah with her seven sons martyr themselves and defend their decision to do so rather than disavow their heritage. God responds to the martyrdom with salvation, leading Judah’s warriors to victory, and the rededication of the Temple. 

Hanukkah History

Now the history of Hanukkah and the festival of lights is where things get particularly interesting. The Maccabees and Antiochus were real people. It seems Antiochus was as big of a dick as portrayed in the Book of Maccabees and rabbinic commentary, but the Maccabees might not have been too far behind him. Although some see the Maccabees as Jewish heroes who fought back against assimilation (Hellenization), they were also religious zealots.

In an episode of Judaism Unbound, guest Rabbi Adam Chalom of the International Institute for Secular Judaism suggests a different lesson of Hanukkah that has nothing to do with great miracles.

“Hanukkah is a great lesson of the dangers of fanaticism because the Maccabees themselves were no ACLU Democrats,” he says. “They went around and forcibly converted surrounding peoples including forcibly circumcising them.”

Chalom goes on to compare the Maccabees with contemporary religious fanatics in the Middle East and reminds listeners that “the first person killed in the Maccabean revolt was a Jew.”

It’s true that the Hanukkah story can just as easily be described as Jew vs. Jew. Not all Jews were against Hellenization. They liked the gymnasiums and were fine dabbling in Greek religion.

“Hanukkah grows out of a split in the Jewish soul,” says author Rabbi Irving Greenberg in The Jewish Way. “In most of the battles in that extended war, jews fought among themselves as soldiers in the armies on both sides.”

A Maccabean Comparison

With that in mind, some people find an easy modern link to the history of Hanukkah. Most younger Jews aren’t affiliated with a synagogue and American Jews are increasingly assimilated into mainstream American culture with each generation. Add to the mix that how you define a Jew can be complicated with definitions that exclude people who consider themselves Jewish and broader definitions that would include people who don’t consider themselves Jewish.

So the Maccabean comparison here is that some Jews lament other Jews letting go of their heritage and traditions in favor of embracing the mainstream, like celebrating Christmas. Others don’t see that as such a bad thing. After all, a pine tree in the living room does not a Christian make.

Author Abigail Pogrebin of My Jewish Year contemplates the same question, writing “But implicit in so many of the Hanukkah teachings I’m now reading is that Jews are in danger of losing our direction––our distinctiveness––and abandoning the traditions, language, and texts that make us Jews.”

Stepping back to the history, Pogrebin shares her conversation with Rabbi Steinsaltz, who says “The Maccabean Revolt was a war that Jews fought to remain Jews.” He continues, saying “The idea of the Maccabean fight was, Can you keep your identity? … And that fight, in a certain way, exists today.”

A Greek Festival?

Then again, maybe all that history is moot with respect to how the holiday came to be. Rabbi Chalom says that if you read the book of Maccabees closely, it’s clear that the 25th of Kislev on the Jewish calendar [when we celebrate Hanukkah] was the day of a Greek festival. That same date was chosen for Hanukkah even though it may have originated as a pagan celebration or even as the birthday celebration of the Hanukkah story’s arch-villain, Antiochus. 

You might think that’s strange, but religions and cultures have made a regular practice of poaching from previous cultures and traditions to establish their own customs.

Another explanation? The ancient Jews were just making up for a missed Sukkot celebration because Antiochus stopped them from commemorating the holiday. So when they retook the temple, they just celebrated a late Sukkot, which also lasts eight days.

What’s the takeaway here? For me, it’s that Hanukkah is far more interesting than I ever thought. I mean, Rugrats had already left me with a pretty good impression of Hanukkah, but this complex history seals the deal, for I am a colossal nerd.

Hanukkah Today | The American Holiday

With that history digesting, you might be wondering how we should celebrate Hanukkah today. If the miracle of the oil didn’t happen, what’s the point?

I don’t mean to keep throwing it to Rabbi Chalom, but this is a line that really resonated with me.

“Hannukah is a statement of Jewish identity. It’s saying ‘I am Jewish.’ 

This meshes well with how we’re supposed to celebrate Hanukkah today. Unless at risk of experiencing anti-semitism, you’re supposed to put your menorah in the window during the holiday to let passersby know that someone with Jewish identity lives there.

Now, what about celebrating Hanukkah and Christmas? It’s hard to dispute that Christmas has helped shape Hanukkah among American Jews. It simply wasn’t a big deal in the Old Country or even 50 years ago in the States.

Again from Pogrebin’s My Jewish Year, she quotes Seth Schwartz, Columbia Professor of Classical Jewish Civilization:

“We needed a big story to compete with the Christmas story. So I think it’s specifically American.”

“Jewishness is a heritage”

Then, pop culture happened. Adam Sandler wrote the “Hanukkah Song,” Rugrats released a Hanukkah special, and The OC invented Chrismukkah. Suddenly, Hanukkah had legs to make a respectable showing against Christmas. There’s no shortage of Hanukkah music. How do you explain that shizz?

These days, it’s perfectly common for Jews to celebrate Hanukkah and embrace the secular elements of Christmas especially as inter-cultural marriages become more the norm as opposed to the exception. (For the record, I grew up with a tree, presents, and am only just now embracing Hanukkah.)

Here’s Rabbi Chalom (I promise it’s the last time):

“Jewishness is a heritage, it’s an inheritance. It’s not the same as being a museum curator where you have to keep things exactly the same. Rather, it becomes yours. And so it’s yours to use as you choose, to adapt, to select from. It’s all yours. All of this Jewish inheritance, both what you love and what you don’t agree with. But your home is still your home, and so you still get to choose from that background what speaks to you, what’s most meaningful, and from other families and other traditions.”

Jewish and…

To be clear, you can certainly find rabbis who disagree with Rabbi Chalom. They would say that Judaism is Judaism and can’t be molded to suit your needs. (Of course to that, Rabbi Chalom would say something along the lines of, “We’re going to lose more Jews.”)

“But we in the Jewish world need to take a different approach. In the past it’s been Jewish or, Hanukkah or, us or them, in or out,” he says. “And the reality today with the fluidity of identities and the concept of being multiple identities at once in a household, in a family, as an individual, is we have to be willing to be Jewish and.”

This holiday season, I’ll be celebrating Hanukkah and Christmas because I’m Jewish and I like trees, ornaments, and carols. I’ll play Barenaked For The Holidays because I like their “Hanukkah Blessings” and their take on “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman” featuring sad animal advocate, Sarah McLachlan.

How To Celebrate Hanukkah

Like any holiday, people come up with their own traditions. In general, you add candles to the menorah from right to left (like you’d read Hebrew) and light them with the central shamash candle from left to right. If you’re so inclined, there are blessings you can recite before lighting them. You do this after sunset and then exchange gifts.

Beyond that, you can chow down on Hanukkah foods, like latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts). I’ll be trying recipes from Tori Avey and Claudia Roden for latkes and will most likely buy my sufganiyot from a pro.

The theme here is foods fried in oil because of the story the rabbis made up. Although you might not love that the rabbis made up the story, I think you’ll give them a pass since it led to eating latkes and sufganiyot as part of a holiday celebration.

“I must eat these oily foods! It’s for my heritage and my ancestors!”

Oh, Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel

Oh, and what about dreidels? The story with dreidels is that it’s a game Jews played when Greeks came snooping around.

“Hey, you’re not studying Torah are you?”

“Me? Nope, just spinning this top with Hebrew letters on it.”

You can see the problem with this story already; they have Hebrew letters on the dreidels. Wouldn’t that blow your cover?

Truth be told, dreidel comes from Eastern European Jews. The Hebrew letters are nun, shin, hey, and gimel. These letters are an acronym for “Nes Gadol Haya Sham,” which means “A great miracle happened there.” (In Israel, it’s changed to, “A great miracle happened here.”)

In reality, they actually represent the Yiddish words. N for “nisht” or “nothing,” G for “gantz” or “all,” H for “halb” or “half,” and S for “shtel ayn” or “put in.” These words correspond with the rules of the game after each spin: do nothing, take all the Hanukkah gelt (chocolate candy shaped like money), take half, or put one in.

It’s traditionally a children’s game, but Hey Alma came up with this drinking version that makes it all worthwhile.

So you’ve just found out you’re Jewish? Here are some tips on how to explore your Jewish heritage. Then if you’re ready for Torah, start with some amateur Jewish commentary.

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