What is the real story of Chanukah?
Okay, we know it’s not the “Jewish Christmas.” And we know that historically it’s been a relatively minor event in the Jewish calendar – a poor step-sister to holidays such as Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Passover.
(But a step-sister that — like Cinderella — has been dressed up in a ball gown and bangles to keep American Jewish kids from wilting with Santa envy!)
That’s what Chanukah is not. But when we look at what it is, we find a choice of three different Chanukahs. They’re all nominally about the Maccabees, but each is really about something else:
The miraculous Chanukah. This is the version that most kids are taught in Hebrew school: We are celebrating God’s miracle of making a single day’s worth of oil burn for eight days after the Temple in Jerusalem was reclaimed from desecration. The hero of this story is God, and the message is that we should pray and thank God for magically, supernaturally, like Superman, flying in and saving the day.
The freedom-of-religion Chanukah. This version, I suspect, is the most common one among mainstream American Jews. We are celebrating the Maccabees’ successful battle for the right to worship as they chose. The protagonists of this story are Judah Maccabee and his compatriots – but the unspoken hero is American democracy and the freedom it gives us to live openly as Jews. Think: Maccabees-as-card-carrying-ACLU-members.
The national liberation Chanukah. This is the story we told each other in Hashomer Hatzair, the socialist-Zionist youth group I belonged to as a teenager, and I suspect is the most common version in Israel. (Hey, Israeli readers, weigh in here!) This version celebrates the successful guerrilla struggle of Judean peasants against the vastly more powerful armies of Hellenized Syria. Here we have Maccabees-as-Viet-Cong, using their intimate knowledge of the land and their roots among the people to rout a foreign occupier. The implicit hero is… Zionism, and its successful effort to create an independent Jewish state.
Which is your Chanukah?
(And chag sameach! Although my husband argues that, since Chanukah is not really a major festival, one shouldn’t really say chag. I say pfooey. Chag sameach. )
Next up: A reader’s reunion with Howard Fast and My Glorious Brothers.