Posts Tagged ‘Chanukah’

Family traditions, my traditions?

December 7, 2012

What happens to family traditions when your family goes away?

Well, “family goes away” might be stating things a bit too strongly. But this is our first winter with our daughter away in college, and holidays feel different when there is no child in the house.

Even if for the past couple of years that “child” was a big, independent, less-than-optimally-communicative teenager.

Take Chanukah, which arrives this weekend with its usual single-candle blaze of glory. Normally we would make a Big Deal of the first night of Chanukah — festive dinner with relatives or friends, lots of presents, latkes, chocolate gelt, dreidels. Most years we would end up making latkes on two or three different evenings for different configurations of friends and guests. And we always made sure to buy at least eight gifts, and we had big gift-opening hoopla every night.

This year? I do not want to cook a single latke. I will be completely fine if I don’t eat a single latke. Okay, I’ll eat some when we get together with our chavurah in late December, but other than that…. meh.

Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, I'm free at last / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, I’m free at last / Photo by Ilana DeBare

I don’t want to open gifts every night either. I’d like to open gifts on the last night, when Daughter will be home for her winter vacation. But other than that, I don’t really care.

What I do want is to light the candles and say the blessings. Just a nice straightforward little candle-lighting at dinnertime with Sam. (Followed by watching some Jon Stewart re-runs?)

In one sense, this is completely reasonable. Chanukah is a minor holiday in Jewish tradition, which mushroomed out of its historic proportions in the past 50 years as American Jews tried to come up with a counterbalance to the glitter of Christmas. Lighting candles with a minimum of fuss is probably closer to the traditional Chanukah than what we’ve been doing in our household for the past 18 years.

But there are other times when the issue is murkier. Take Shabbat. When Daughter was home, we lit candles and said blessings on most Friday nights where we were all home together. This fall, when Sam and I have been home on a Friday, it’s felt slightly weird lighting candles with just the two of us.

Part of me felt, “Why are we going through the motions? It’s just the two of us.”

Which raised the question… were we just lighting candles to educate our child? or were we doing it for us also?

That question is more nuanced for me than it might be for some people because I was not raised with much Judaism at all. My family had a Passover seder and lit a menorah, but we never celebrated Shabbat or belonged to a synagogue. So the Jewish traditions I carry out are ones that I’ve consciously chosen as an adult, rather than ones I inhaled with my childhood air.

But back to that Shabbat moment of to-light-or-not-to-light….

I lit.

I skipped the white table cloth. But I lit the candles, even without Daughter.

And there are really two reasons for that. One is that as adults, we need to take care of ourselves — regardless of whether we have kids around or not. I don’t want to be someone who lives on TV Dinners because there are no children to cook for. I don’t want to be that old lady who lets the house go uncleaned and unrepaired because she’s the only one living there. We need to nourish ourselves as well as our children.

Shabbat is a kind of nourishment, like a home-cooked meal, an occasional massage,  a bouquet of flowers from the farmer’s market. And that brings me to the second reason — I do want to keep Shabbat as a part of my life. I care about it and believe in it. So I lit.

But clearly that’s not true for every Jewish tradition. Some are falling by the wayside.

Building a Sukkah? We did it for about ten years when Daughter was little. Now? Forget it!

Latkes? Can live without the oil, the mess and the calories.

Shabbat? Big Passover Seder? Chanukah candle-lighting? Those are keepers.

What about you? Any changes in your family rituals or traditions if you’ve had children leave home? And what does that say about your values and priorities? 

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Let there be light… all winter

December 9, 2010

The last night of Chanukah was Wednesday, and now we have to put away our electric plastic window menorah.

I was a mixture of appalled and guilty when we bought it almost 15 years ago. An electric plastic menorah? With little orange Christmas-tree bulbs for the flames? How tacky! How Wal-Mart! How goyish!

Photo by Ilana DeBare

But Becca was a little girl and we wanted more bright and shiny holiday geegaws around the house. So while we lit our lovely real-candle Chanukkiah in the kitchen over dinner, up went the electric plastic one in our living-room window. And now I love it.

I love that it looks right out on our street, from an elevated perch, so anyone can see it when they walk past at night. It is a little beacon of light in the winter darkness. It says, “This is a home. There is light here. There is love here. There is Judaism here.”

I loved it even more when I recently learned that the Talmud  instructs us to display the menorah in a place where others can see it — next to the front door or in a window. (Except in times of danger or persecution, when it may be lit inside.)

Last week I wrote all those posts speculating on the Maccabees and the historical meaning of Chanukah. I didn’t have a chance to mention one central aspect of Chanukah, which has nothing to do with its historical narrative.

Like solstice, Christmas, Diwali and Kwanzaa, it’s a festival of light at the darkest time of the year. In all of these celebrations, light signifies hope, joy, love, faith at a time when we might otherwise lean to the dark and hopeless. 

So I feel really sad today that we need to box up our tacky plastic electric menorah and pack it away for another year. I wish we could keep it in the window for the rest of December, while all the Christmas lights remain up. But then it wouldn’t really be a Chanukkiah.

So I’ll console myself with another reference to light.

Last Sunday, I was fortunate enough to attend an absolutely wonderful concert by Leonard Cohen at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland. At 76, Cohen has been touring for something like two years straight. He performed for three and a half hours with grace, style, humor and intimacy. (And his fedora.)

He was welcomed with a standing ovation, but not the kind of standing ovation that a Springsteen or Bono would get — not a “Yeah! Let’s rock!” ovation, but an intimate embrace, a tribute, a thank-you to someone who had moved you in the deepest places of your heart. (Who touched your perfect body with his mind?)

There’s a lyric from Anthem, one of the songs he performed,  that goes:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

We are all human and profoundly flawed. But may the light continue to stream in through those cracks for all of us, all winter, long after the Chanukkiot and Christmas bulbs are packed away.

My glorious Maccabees? — Part 3 of 3

December 5, 2010

When thinking about history, I reflexively picture myself in one camp or another. If I’m reading about 19th century New England, I wonder if I would have been a radical abolitionist or someone who said, “yes, slavery is wrong but give the South time to come to its senses.” When I think about Germany in the 1930s, I wonder if I would have had the foresight to get my family out or if I would have counted on things only getting so bad and no worse. 

Mattathias, father of the Maccabee brothers, killing an apostate - from a 19th century Christian Bible woodcut by Gustave Dore

With the Chanukah story, I’ve always pictured myself with the Maccabees. Who wouldn’t? They were common folks who rose up against tyranny and fought for religious freedom. (Just ask Howard Fast!) They were underdogs against a cruel empire. As guerrilla fighters, they couldn’t have won without broad support from the people, which implies they were just, wise, compassionate. 

Or were they? 

This fall, for an adult ed class on Jewish history at my temple, we read parts of Paul Johnson’s A History of the Jews. And Johnson paints a more complex picture: 

The Maccabean revolt grew at least partially out of tensions within the Judaean community over Hellenization – disagreement among Jews themselves over how much to adapt to Greek culture. 

Diaspora Jews of that time learned and spoke Greek, often using a Hellenic name for business and a Hebrew name at home. In Judaea, meanwhile, some Jews retreated from Greek influence and modern life to form desert sects such as the Essenes. Others – particularly the wealthy, urban, and educated — embraced Greek culture and its rational, universalistic philosophy. 

Johnson writes that these reformist Jews: 

“re-read the historical scriptures and tried to deprovincialize them. Were not Abraham and Moses… great citizens of the world? They embarked on the first Biblical criticism: the Law, as now written, was not very old and certainly did not go back to Moses. They argued that the original laws were far more universalistic… The reformers found the Torah full of fables and impossible demands and prohibitions…. (They) did not want to abolish the Law completely but to purge it of those elements which forbade participation in Greek culture… and reduce it to its ethical core, so universalizing it.”

Antiochus, the Syrian king who spurred the Maccabee revolt, didn’t act alone.  He had supporters among the urban pro-Hellenic Jews. But Johnson argues that the pro-Hellenists erred in trying to impose “reform from above.”  They alienated the masses of poor rural Jews, who became the Maccabees’ support base.

So the rebellion that we now celebrate with Chanukah targeted not just a brutal Syrian occupier but internal Jewish reformers. And the Maccabees’ victory was a defeat not only of extreme Hellenization, but also of moderate reform. 

Johnson writes:

“The zeal and intensity of the (reformers’) assault on the Law aroused a corresponding zeal for the Law, narrowing the vision of the Jewish leadership and pushing ever more deeply into a Torah-centered religion. With their failure, the reformers discredited the notion of reform itself, or even any discussion of the nature and direction of the Jewish religion. Such talk was henceforth denounced in all the official texts as nothing less than total apostasy and collaboration with the foreign oppression, so that it became difficult for moderates of any kind… to get a hearing.”

Perhaps the Maccabees were for freedom of religion in the same way that the Pilgrim fathers of the Massachusetts Bay colony were — for themselves.

Not for anyone else.

In any case, the war launched by Judah and his brothers lasted on and off for 34 years, eventually leading to a dynasty of rulers descended from the Maccabees.

Johnson describes the Maccabees’ heirs as “petty despots.”  They allied themselves with the Sadducee faction within Judaism, which believed in a literal and unchanging interpretation of the writings of Torah — what today we would call fundamentalism.

Simon Maccabee’s third son, John Hyrcanus, “accepted as literal truth that the whole of Palestine was the divine inheritance of the Jewish nation, and that it was not merely his duty but his right to conquer it.”  To do this, he created the first mercenary army in Jewish history, pillaged and burned cities, and gave residents of non-Jewish areas a choice of conversion, expulsion or death.

The Maccabees, Johnson writes, were “brave, desperate, fanatical, strong-minded and violent.”

Would I really have been a Maccabee? 

Or might I have been one of those urban, reformist Jews – attracted to Greek culture, yearning to feel part of a broad pan-Mediterranean civilization, looking at the Torah as a historical document and focusing on the universal aspect of its values?

 That does sound a lot like me. Or like most of modern Reform and secular Judaism, in fact.

 And the Maccabees sound almost, eerily, like….. the Taliban???

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Note: Want more historical controversy over the Maccabees and the meaning of Chanukah? Thanks to Mary M. for pointing out this online essay. Be sure to read the full response by Rabbi Bruce Kahn in the comments section.

And for a really excellent summary and analysis of all the different interpretations of Chanukah and the Maccabees, check out this blog post by William Berkson on the Reform Judaism web site. Boy, if I’d seen this earlier, I could have skipped writing my own three blog posts and spent the time grating more latkes.  :-)

Enough yakking about history -- enjoy the latkes! / Photo by Ilana DeBare

My glorious Maccabees? – Part 2 of 3

December 3, 2010

It was a little like going to a high school reunion: I was curious how the years had treated an old friend whom I hadn’t glimpsed since I was a teenager. 

I’m talking about My Glorious Brothers, Howard Fast’s historical novel about the Maccabees, which I just re-read as part of my lead-up to Chanukah. 

If you’re not familiar with Fast, he was a prolific 20th century novelist whose other books include Citizen Tom Paine and Spartacus, the basis for the famous movie with Kirk Douglas. 

He also happened to be a committed socialist and a member of the Communist Party who spent three months in jail for refusing to name names, and who was blacklisted throughout the 1950s. (He self-published Spartacus when he could no longer write for established publishers.) 

Fast is no Joyce or Woolf, but he  is good at creating vivid characters and settings. He’s an easy and engaging read — which, I have learned  in my own writing efforts, is no small achievement. 

My Glorious Brothers came out in 1948, in the wake of the Holocaust and the same year as the creation of the state of Israel. There are echoes of both in Fast’s version of the Maccabeean rebellion — paeans to the beauty of the land, musings by a diplomat from the Roman Empire about how the Jews inspire universal loathing with their stubborn refusal to compromise their beliefs.

The narrator is Simon, an old man and the last of the five Maccabee brothers, reminiscing with love and sorrow about the early days of their uprising. The bare bones of the story come from the two Biblical books of the Maccabees, but like any good drash (commentary), Fast fills out those bones with the flesh of his imagination. 

Judah Maccabee and his four brothers, in Fast’s retelling, are honest farmers, sons of a wise and respected village leader. They are reluctantly thrust into guerrilla war by a series of brutal and horrendous acts by the Greek-influenced Syrian empire that was controlling Judea at the time. 

Fast does not even mention the rabbinic story of oil miraculously burning for eight days. 

In short, he takes a combination of the national-liberation and freedom-of-religion views of Chanukah. (See my last blog post.) Here’s an excerpt about the early days of the rebellion: 

Never had there been a thing like this in Israel before – or in any land, for these men were not mercenaries nor were they wild barbarians, in whom war and life are so intermixed that the one cannot be entangled from the other. No, these were simple farmers, gentle scholars whose devotion had been to the Law, the covenant, and the scrolls of our past. Some, indeed, knew well enough the use of our small, laminated bows and had shot partridges and rabbits with them, but even those had no experience with spears or swords…. 

Among the volunteers were six engineers, two of whom had lived among the Romans and taught us to make their catapults. Well do I remember how they marched into Ephraim, these strangers from far off Egypt, laden with gifts and dressed in beautiful garments that made our peasant homespun seem simple indeed. They brought a gift for the Maccabee: a banner of blue silk, and upon it a star of David, and sewn beneath the star: Judas Maccabeus. Who resists tyrants obeys God. And I remember too how they crowded forward to look at Judas – who had already become a legend, and the wonder and surprise of the volunteers when they discovered that Judas was as young as most of them and younger than some. 

Play based on My Glorious Brothers performed on Kibbutz Sarid, 1951

So what was the outcome of this high school reunion? Did the star quarterback maintain his physique, the homecoming queen her charisma?

I was surprised to find how much I still enjoyed My Glorious Brothers.  Fast sure can tell a story. Granted, there are parts that are a bit hokey such as a fictional love triangle between Simon, Judah and the “girl next door.” But he really gives you a feeling for what life was like in a hillside Judean village in the second century BCE, what might have been at stake for the Maccabees and their supporters, the odds they faced and the miraculous fight they waged. 

(His description of the Jewish bow fighters seeing elephants for the first time ever – elephants imported from India! carrying mercenaries and ready to trample them! – reminded me of the battle scene outside Gondor in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings. Judah Maccabee as Legolas, anyone?) 

In short: five stars. Read it. Buy it/borrow it. Give it to any Jewish teenagers in your life.  

BUT….

How accurate is Fast’s depiction of those humble Maccabeean freedom fighters?

Next up:  Maccabees as Taliban?

My glorious Maccabees? – Part 1 of 3

December 1, 2010

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.