Hanukkah for Humanists from your Happy Historian (something to mull on a gray day in the no man’s land between xmas and new years.)

Want to read my essay for the New York Times two years ago?

BTW any article I ever wrote was edited more than all my books together.  But my prose is a little um, poetic, for the NYT.

So we sent drafts back and forth.  Regular bleaders, see if you can still hear me in there.
December 15, 2006, 5:14 PM

My Real Holiday


Hanukkah has an identity problem — and not just because it’s overshadowed by Christmas. It is often disowned by the very people who celebrate it. Must my fellow Jews forever explain to Christians how Hanukkah is not a real holiday, even though it is the only Jewish holiday represented at the local drug store? Maybe if they knew more about Hanukkah, they’d understand that it is celebrated precisely because it is a Jewish alternative to Christmas. The story of Hanukkah is old; only its celebration is new.

In the 19th century, many Jews lived secular lives, practicing few of the laws of Moses (the Jewish dietary, ritual and prayer laws). Meanwhile, Christmas was becoming a consumer bacchanal, with feasts, presents and solstice friendliness called “Christmas cheer.” Throughout the world many progressive Jews saw no harm in joining in. Others worried.

“A misuse has arisen in Jewish families,” Rabbi Michael Silberstein wrote in 1871, “namely, the observance of the Christmas holy day as a day of Jewish sanctity.” He and others wanted a separate winter party compelling enough to keep secular Jews from decorating a tree. The Jewish calendar had a ritual in December, Hanukkah, during which candles are lit for eight nights, using a lighting candle called the shamus. Silberstein and others decided that “the festival of Hanukkah should be turned into a family celebration” with a big fuss in school and at home. The plan worked nicely. Today Jews can stake their identities over by the electric menorah and join the Christmas party, the big American winter festival, without feeling too displaced.

Yet what many progressive, modern Jews may not realize is that the real Hanukkah story directly contradicts their social values. The toned-down, one-sided version we give children tells how a Greek empire conquered ancient Judea and, using Jewish turncoats, stole from the Temple and later outlawed Judaism. The emperor even put a statue of Zeus in the Temple! So Judah Maccabee led the Jews in rebellion. Hanukkah’s heroine was Hannah, who saw seven sons die rather than bow to the emperor’s idol. Against all odds, the Maccabees won. When the Jews went to reconsecrate the Temple, they found they had only one day’s worth of oil; it would take eight days to get more. Yet the oil they had lasted until the supply could be replenished. It was a miracle.

That familiar tale is skewed, however. In the second century B.C., when the Hanukkah story took place, the Seleucid Empire took over Judea from the Ptolemaic Empire. The Seleucian rulers of Judea, like the Ptolemaic leaders before them, allowed the Jews to live under their own laws. Still, when the Seleucids arrived, they brought Greek culture with them, in the form of architecture, books and theater. For Jews, this meant an economic, social and cultural boom. Jews took on Greek names — Joshua became Jason, Saul became Paul. And they built a gymnasium — a Greek center for training in sports, philosophy and politics — at the foot of the Temple Mount.

According to Maccabees II (in the Catholic Bible), Temple “priests ceased to show any interest in the services of the altar” and would hurry off “as soon as the signal was given for the discus.” Many Greek-educated Jews of the upper class (often the elite priest class) ignored the laws of Moses, which seemed restrictive and dated. Abraham became their great father because, predating Moses, he did not keep kosher.

Some of these Hellenized Jews came to resent their Temple taxes going up in smoke in the form of animal sacrifices. The Talmud tells how Miriam, a Hellenized Jew, removed her sandal and struck the Temple altar with it, yelling: “Wolf, Wolf, you have squandered the riches of Israel!” Others of this group, led by the high priest Menelaus, asked Emperor Antiochus IV to put Judea under the empire’s laws and ban the laws of Moses. Progressive, urbane Jews were already living this way, but the pious, poorer Jews were outraged and rose up.

The violence began when, according to Maccabees II, “a certain Jew” went up to give sacrifice to the Imperial idols and Mattathias’s “wrath was kindled … and running upon him he slew him upon the altar: Moreover the man whom king Antiochus had sent, who compelled them to sacrifice, he slew at the same time.” The killer’s son Judah would come to be called Maccabee (the hammer) for his ruthless soldiering. Wherever the Maccabees triumphed, secular Jewish men were brutalized, even beheaded. Of Miriam’s fate, the Talmud tells only that she “was punished”; we may assume other women were, too.

Outside Judea, the mix of Greek and Jewish cultures carried on. Other ancestors of modern Judaism would ignore the military tale of the Maccabees altogether. In fact, Maccabees I and II are not included in the Jewish canon, and can only be found in Catholic Bibles. Today, rabbis are happy to commemorate the rededication of the Temple, but gloss over the gory details.

This year, my family’s Hanukkah will be a celebration of Hellenized Jewry. These ancestors weren’t turncoats, after all — they were good cosmopolitan Jews. On our family’s menorah each candle will represent a voice in the chorus of Judaism, lit from the shamus candle that is our history. Judah Maccabee and Hannah are in our story, but so is the nameless Jew martyred for a multicultural gesture, and Miriam who thought of sacrifice as superstition. This version of Hanukkah is meaningful to me — a real holiday.

Of course if you want to know more it’s all in my Doubt: A history, with ample footnotage.  Doubt: A History

[December 28, 2008]


About jennifermichaelhecht

I'm a poet with a PhD in the History of Science from Columbia University and I've written five books, two poetry, two popular philosophy, one intellectual history. I live in Brooklyn with my husband and our two little kids. I teach seminars in poetry in the MFA programs at The New School and at Columbia.
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