November 29, 2013
Tonight is the third night of Chanukah, usually referred to as the “Festival of Lights” by American Jews but more accurately could be described as the “Festival of Rededication”. You see, there are a lot of misconceptions in the general public about what Chanukah is, mostly because of its close timing with Christmas (most of the time). Unlike the reciprocal relationship between Passover and Easter, Chanukah is not only unrelated to Christmas…its not even remotely similar.
The story of Chanukah has its root in the conquests of Alexander the Great. Yes. That guy who took over the world then decided to die and leave it ruins. Well, after Alexander died leaving no heir, his conquests were divvied up among Generals and Governors and such and the land of Judea—Israel—was ruled by Antiochus IV. Being a proud Greek and a despot, Antiochus placed a Hellenistic priest in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, ruined the place, and generally oppressed the Jews.
The same basic plot of most Jewish Holidays—our people were conquered, we persevered, and a miracle occurred.
In this sense, the perseverance was in the sense of the rag tag resistance group against the invading Greeks, The Maccabees (Hammers), led by Judah in battle and rallied by their lead Mattathias. Hiding in the foothills and (at least as Hebrew School would have me believe) slaying elephants mounted by archers in togas, the Maccabees fought a bloody war and were able to recapture the Temple, the City of Jerusalem, the land.
Inside the defiled Temple the Cohens (priests) and the Maccabees went to set order to the place: returning the religious articles to their former glory and the Menorah—a kind of giant lamp that burned olive oil—was without enough oil which effectively rendered the Temple useless. I presume, because they could not see without it. There had only been enough oil—so the story goes—for one day, yet it miraculously burned for eight days…just the amount of time needed to make more oil.
In remembrance of this miracle—but really in remembrance of the bloody and hard fought victory—we celebrate Chanukah. Because the holiday is a festival and not a holiday, really, there isn’t much in the way of religious observance to the event…despite the religious tone set by the end of the story. As a festival, we eat festive foods but not an ordered meal, we play games and give tokens of appreciation, but do not have a particular prayer ceremony (beyond the lighting of the Chanukah Menora, the Chanukiah). However, in America this has become lost and has become celebrated in a manner more akin to Christmas spread over eight days.
To be honest, I never understood the gift giving aspect of Christmas either. Its supposed to be Jesus’s birthday, not mine, but hey yeah, I’ll take some presents. With Chanukah what happened, essentially, was that Jewish parents felt their kids were being left out of Christmas, which they were. Instead of becoming Christians or explaining to their kids, “No, that’s not what we do”, they decided let’s take this fun and games holiday and merchandise the schlock out of it, and tada, American Chanukah is born.
As a people—Americans—we tend to find a way to make everything about sales and merchandising and spending money and acquiring things regardless of the holiday. The truly sad part is that we are completely self-aware about this. People are reluctant to make 9-11 into a Bank Holiday because they worry that by the time you are 25 and I am 50 that it will be an appliance sale. Regardless of that, as Americans we not only merchandised Christmas, but then threw in Chanukah and decided that somehow Chanukah is really important to the Jewish religion. It isn’t. It kind of ranks with Tu B’Shvat, the Festival of Trees. Jewish Arbor Day. You eat dates and raisins.
But I love Chanukah. Latkahs are awesome. Presents are the best. And you’ll get presents, but the point that I want you to leave this particular letter with is this. Jews fight. We kill Greeks on elephants and have nuclear weapons, we beat the odds, we get the degrees, and invent the machine guns. Be proud of your heritage, but never mistake it for the stereotypes and the merchandising. There’s a message behind every festival and holiday, religious or otherwise. Always look for the reason to celebrate rather than the traditions.
You may find that you’ve forgotten what you’re supposed to be remembering.
PS- You and Ayla have gotten your fair share of Chanukah presents, but I have also made sure to share the experience of lighting candles and reading Hebrew with you, even at the young age of 3 and 2. Its important to know the real what and the actual why.