My glorious Maccabees? – Part 1 of 3

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.

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3 Responses to “My glorious Maccabees? – Part 1 of 3”

  1. Janice Dean Says:

    I bought my first chanukiyah yesterday, and I am smitten with it! The farther in time and place I get from the Jewish holidays that I spent with my childhood best friend and her family, the more I desire to bring them back into my adult life. I will admit that the only version of the Chanukah story that I remember hearing growing up was focused on the miracle of the oil burning for eight days. We, of course, heard all about the Maccabees, but I never put that together with a narrative of freedom of religion or of national liberation. Perhaps it was because I have always suffered significant seasonal depression and was growing up in the Detroit area, but focusing on the long-lasting light really spoke to me. Latkes with sour cream and applesauce, of course, also helped! Now that I read your blog, however, I’m fascinated by the freedom of religion reading of the story. I think I will meditate on that theme as I light both my chanukiyah for the next seven nights and my Advent wreath for the next three Sundays. And I think that I will pray for our American Muslim brothers and sisters who are currently fighting for the same recognition of their right to freedom of religion as Jews, Catholics, and other groups have fought for in the past. Thanks again for making me think, Ilana!

    • Ilana DeBare Says:

      Janice, the candles and the latkes and applesauce in the middle of winter are no small thing! Certainly an aspect of all these holidays — Chanukah, Christmas, solstice etc. — is helping people get through the darkest months of the year with a little light and joy.

      And I couldn’t agree with you more about spreading the umbrella of American religious freedom to Muslims….

  2. Linda K. Wertheimer Says:

    Interesting, provocative post on Chanukah. I’m no scholar of the different Hanukkah stories, but the version I prefer would be the right to worship the way we choose.
    To me, that means not trying to duplicate Christmas and all of its trappings – the shopping frenzy, the decorations, the hype, etc.
    We’re, for the second time, trying to make the eight days more about the holiday and family time than gifts with our son, who’s now almost 3.
    I just wrote about that in the Boston Jewish weekly and also did a sidebar on rabbis’ views. If you or your blog followers want to take a look, you can find the articles on my website at: (My column) (The rabbis’ view)

    And my husband and I had that same discussion about Chag Sameach.
    Happy Hanukkah!

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