Monthly Archives: December 2009

Mr. D’s Guide to the Holidays # 4: Kwanzaa

In Barack Obama’s America, is Kwanzaa relevant anymore?  At least in the South Bronx, Kwanzaa is dying, if not dead already.

If you want a good gauge as to the state of a community, poll a classroom to see if any families still celebrate this holiday.  Before the recess, I polled some students.  In a room where, despite the majority Hispanic status, almost everyone has some African ancestry in them, only one family celebrated Kwanzaa. 

The Latino families obviously had Christmas as the higher priority—it also had the better haul of presents.  First-generation African immigrants, understandably, were confused about celebrating a heritage they took as a given.  Yet even among black American families, Kwanzaa has diminished in importance.

The decline can be felt everywhere, as seen in a recent Associated Press article.  According to Keith Mayes, an assistant professor of African American & African Studies at the University of Minnesota, Kwanzaa participation has leveled off.  In a population of almost 40 million identified as Black by the US Census—including multiracial Americans—only about half a million to 2 million people celebrate the holiday. 

Even the President, Barack Obama, doesn’t celebrate Kwanzaa—and it’s hard to get more African than him. 

Why the decline?  And if Kwanzaa is in such decline, do African-Americans find any relevance in the holiday anymore? 

If you’re not African-American—and I’m not—Kwanzaa is often too quickly dismissed as a “pseudo-holiday.”  I’ve looked at these false-festivals when it comes to education.  Kwanzaa, at least on the surface, bears all the unfortunate markings of a pseudo-holiday:

(1)    It has a definite founding date and founder – no mystery like in Christmas, no fudging with lunar calendars as in Chanukah.  Ron Karenga, a professor at California State University, Long Beach, founded Kwanzaa in 1966 to celebrate African heritage and culture.

(2)    The underpinnings are dubious – Karenga based his holiday on a Pan-African philosophy combined with 1960’s Marxism, a philosophy not entirely African.  He also used Swahili as the base language for ritual: a language from East Africa that almost none of the original descendants of African Americans probably spoke at all.

(3)    The rituals seem too much like existing rituals – the kinara, the seven-candled candlestick that symbolizes Kwanzaa, is a ritual that borrows much (a little too much) from Chanukah. 

(4)    It was founded in reaction to established holidays – although not so much the case today, Kwanzaa was founded, according to Karenga, as a direct assault on Christmas, which was seen as a white holiday.  Karenga even alleged Jesus was “psychotic.”  Today, most Kwanzaa celebrants participate in the holiday in addition to established winter holidays such as Christmas. 

(5)    It is not a legal holiday, at least in the United States – nor is there any attempt to even make it a holiday.  If Barack Obama isn’t lifting a finger for Kwanzaa, then forget it.

So Kwanzaa has a pretty spotty record as a holiday.  This doesn’t really concern me much.  Christmas wasn’t exactly a hoot in the first century, when raping a bull for Jupiter and bathing in ox semen was considered a religious rite.  Let’s not get started on Chanukah again, or its constant gamesmanship with Christmas.   If Wall Street had its way, Thanksgiving would be moved to December 26, to create an extra-long shopping season.

However, the “pseudo” aspect of the holiday can account for its decline.  The holiday was created at the height of the 1960s, when identity politics first came to the fore.  The slow progress of the civil rights movement frustrated many groups, pushing them to radicalize their politics into a more self-conscious and empowering framework.  It was Crayola politics at its best: African-Americans drifted towards Black Power and Pan-Africanism.  Chicanos and other Hispanics turned to Brown Power.  Native Americans started radical groups like the American Indian Movement (AIM). 

These movements, for the most part, combined a racial or ethnic consciousness with a Marxist economic and social agenda.  The principles of Kwanzaa were framed thus, and so racial empowerment were somehow tied to loopy economic theory.  It’s unfortunate because most of the Kwanzaa principles are ideals all people should hold, such as Unity, Self-Determination, Responsibility, and so forth.

The real Achilles’ heel for Kwanzaa  is among two of these principles.  One is Self-Determination, or Kujichagulia in Swahili.  According to Karenga, Self-Determination means “to define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves, and speak for ourselves.”  In it of itself, this is not that controversial—in fact it is almost liberating.  However, does Karenga really mean for Blacks in America to define themselves, or accept the definition that others see fit?   Many African Americans, while embracing and celebrating their African heritage, do not necessarily identify as such, but rather as Americans first. 

African immigrants are even more blunt: why should they espouse an identity they know better than their distant American cousins?  After all, unlike African Americans, African immigrants left the continent of their own choice, for their own reasons. 

If that wasn’t problematic, consider the most blatantly Marxist of the ideals: Ujamaa, or “cooperative economics.”  This means “To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together.”  The building of Black businesses and the cultivation of Black entrepreneurs is vital to their community.  However, the “profiting together” seems out of touch with business today, especially with that great capitalist mantra that the purpose of business is to make money for you.  Looking at successful Blacks in this country, there is little in the way of “profiting together.”  Nor is it always the best path to create businesses that are entirely owned and operated by one race.  Wall Street banks, for the most part, were all-white affairs, and look how that turned out.

In the past 40 years, the world changed, America changed, racial groups have evolved and prospered in numerous ways.  Does Kwanzaa still fit?  If the statistics are correct, Karenga’s celebration has abutted a consumerist and globalized culture that sees identity politics as less of a barrier and more of a point of entry.  The point is to build bridges, not walls, and Kwanzaa grew as a walled fortress of African self-definition in a white world.

For Kwanzaa’s sake, the walls should come down.  It should evolve into a celebration of identity and heritage, but in a larger, non-alienating framework.   Otherwise, many families will choose to leave the dashiki in the closet.

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This Day in History 12/28: The Birth of Commercial Motion Pictures

With all the hype of the holiday films this year, it’s good to see what really started all this in the first place.

On December 28, 1895, Auguste and Louis Lumiere, two early French filmmakers, gave a for-profit exhibition of their works in Paris.  Their total runtime: about 6 minutes for 10 films average less than a minute each.  We’re not talking epic filmmaking, but rather small snippets of everyday life: a train, a family eating, a gardener, builders, etc. 

Though they did not invent motion pictures, the Lumieres were the first to exhibit their work for a price, thus beginning the modern motion picture industry.  Attached is a selection of their early works that were shown in 1895.  If you show them to students, a few points to remember:

(1) There was no soundtrack, originally.  Turn down the volume to get the same effect.

(2) The next big motion picture moment was the Edison company’s 1901 “epic” The Great Train Robbery.  It was considered “too long” at 11 minutes.

(3) The audiences would shit in their pants, literally, at seeing these images.  Ask your students the last time a film made them empty their colon.

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Mr. D’s Guide to the Holidays # 3: Christmas

For my money, the purest celebration of the Christmas holiday was portrayed in a Vietnam movie.

In Full Metal Jacket, Sgt. Hartman, played by R. Lee Ermey, leads an entire platoon of Marine recruits in a singing of “Happy Birthday Dear Jesus.”  He then blusters about how God loves Marines because they “kill anything they see” and “keep Heaven packed with fresh souls.”

In a rousing finish, he reminds his recruits that “you can give your hearts to Jesus, but your ass belongs to the Corps!”  A more direct, yet realistic expression of the holiday cannot be found.

 I’m not kidding.

Christmas was once, I’m sure, a very simple affair.  A simple celebration of the birth of Jesus, the single most important historical figure in Western civilization.  I’m aces with Big J—more of us should listen to his teachings.  Thus, celebrating his birthday is not a bad thing.

Then Western civilization’s less civilized elements, i.e. Europeans, decided to graft numerous pagan rituals and décor onto the holiday.  Spread on lavish doses of English fiction, American consumer capitalism and global media networks, and you have Christmas as Moloch, a Biblical all-consuming monster that starts well before December 25 (sometimes on December 26 of the previous year) and continues its onslaught until someone mentions the day’s true meaning.

The response is inevitably, “Jesus who?”

I’m no Holy Roller, nor am I some anti-consumer, anti-technology Luddite that scorns all modern society.  In fact, I’m just as guilty as the average slob in hyping up 12/25 as the capitalist Armageddon (pardon the Biblical pun).  My critical eye and cynical brain, however, cannot overlook what Christmas has morphed into—the Darwinian evolution of celebration due to economic necessity. 

In this edition of Mr. D’s Guide to the Holidays, let’s look at how Christmas became “CHRISTMAS,” with all the bells and whistles.  How did the birth of a Jewish carpenter’s son become Christmas specials with the Jonas Brothers and 24-hour carol marathons on soft-rock radio?

Let’s face it, we can’t even get the date right.

December 25 is, by tradition, the date of Jesus’ birth.  None of the Gospels, or any of the letters of Paul, gives an exact date.  Some scholars suggested May 20 (such as Clement of Alexandria), March 28 (A feast calendar from 243 CE), and others didn’t bother, suggesting that birthday celebrations are a pagan influence.  In a time when worshipping Jesus meant a date with a hungry lion, celebrating his birth would’ve drawn undue attention to oneself.

Somewhere in the Third Century, theologians got into their head that he must have been conceived on the Vernal Equinox, or around March 20 or so, making December 25 a logical choice for a birthday.  Funny how that same date had a “perfect storm” of pagan celebrations from which to draw influences.  December 25 was also the feast day of the Persian cult of Mithras, a soldiers’ god—a popular cult of 3rd Century Roman society, which helped Christians get an “in” with Roman elites.  Also thrown in was the winter solstice festivals of Rome (Saturnalia, where gift-giving comes from) as well as the Germanic tribes that ultimately destroyed the empire.  Evergreens, feasts, gifts, lights, Yule logs—they all come from pagan feasts of the early Dark Ages.  Even the word “Yule” is pre-Christian, from pagan Scandinavian winter festivals.

Until the Protestant Reformation, Christmas was a solemn religious holiday with a lot of other holidays around it.  There was Advent, the four weeks before the 25th (which coincided with the pre-Internet shopping season), as well as the twelve days between the 25th and the Epiphany (Jan 6th), or the day Christians celebrate the arrival of the Magi to Jesus in Bethlehem.  Through the late Middle Ages, it was good political sense for a king to Celebrate Christmas: Charlemagne, William the Conqueror and Richard II would all agree.

Then the Protestants came. 

Along with their usual beefs about papal authority and church corruption came this unseemly pet peeve about Christmas.  Puritans, Calvinists, and other killjoys denounced Christmas as a Popish extravagance, a Catholic gala that had the “rags of the Beast.”  Oliver Cromwell, the famous Puritan English general who had a negative view of fun, banned the holiday in 1647, causing riots in the streets.  Wreaths, holly and carols became an act of political rebellion.  Even with the restoration of the holiday in 1660, British clergy discouraged its celebration. 

This translated into the American colonies as well.   Massachusetts outlawed Christmas until 1681, and even then was never really celebrated in force until the mid-1800s.  Christmas was rarely celebrated outside the German communities of Pennsylvania and North Carolina, where it was popular.  It was even less popular after the Revolution, since it was scene as an English holiday.  It’s no coincidence that Washington won at Trenton on Christmas in 1776: The only folks around celebrating were the Hessian mercenaries passed out drunk in their camp.

Christmas really got its modern start from a novel.  In 1843, Charles Dickens released A Christmas Carol, his ode to the old traditions of the holiday.  In his story of Ebenezer Scrooge’s misery, fall, and redemption, Dickens reconfigured the holiday as less of a Christian religious feast and more of a family-oriented event that celebrated compassion and goodwill.  In England, the book was a monumental success, and completely revived the holiday.  Trees (a tradition imported from Germany), carols, feasts and gift-giving suddenly sprang up again in Victorian England.  This fever spread to America as well, as Christmas became an official holiday in 1870.

It was not long after that Christmas, the consumerist monster began to emerge.  It began with Christmas cards.

In 1875, Louis Prang introduced an English tradition to America: Christmas cards.  Thus began over 130 years of sending cards to a book full of people you hardly talk to anymore.  Santa Claus came over from the Dutch SinterKlaas, a variation of St. Nicholas, a saint of the 4th century known for gift-giving.  This led to the discovery, by the real pain-in-the-ass children, that Santa didn’t exist; producing long lists of toys that now had to be handled by overworked parents.  Hence, the shopping season was born.  The day after Thanksgiving (Black Friday), as well as the first Monday after that (Cyber Monday) start the mad dash to buy crap before the prices get rolled up..oh wait, this stuff’s already too expensive.

By the time of Thomas Edison’s invention of motion pictures, Christmas now had a mass audience.  Christmas movies abound during the season, from the great (It’s a Wonderful Life) to the okay (Miracle on 34th Street) to the God awful (Fred Claus).  Soon after, television came into the scene, providing all sorts of new ways to keep children occupied while Daddy breaks their college fund to pay for their presents.  The Grinch, Charlie Brown, Rudolph and Frosty share a place in the Christmas pantheon thanks to the boob tube.

The Christmas carol, many of which date to the Middle Ages, gets new life in the 20th and 21st centuries.  It is no wonder that the single most successful song in history was Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” by Bing Crosby in 1942.  Bing has a lot of company now, and most of it is a pale imitation—although the new kids probably didn’t suffer the red asses that Bing’s kids got so frequently.

So now we have the current incarnation: lights, media, dazzle, the blown fuse on the icicle lights on the roof again, etc.  Somewhere along the way, Big J got lost in the shuffle.  Again, I’m no snake handler nor faith healer, just someone who likes to get back to the heart of things. 

Therefore, I’ll give the last word to the Gospel of Luke:

“Now in those days a decree went out from (A)Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of (B)all [a]the inhabited earth…and everyone was on his way to register for the census, each to his own city. Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David which is called Bethlehem, because (D)he was of the house and family of David, in order to register along with Mary, who was engaged to him, and was with child…and she (E)gave birth to her firstborn son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.”

“In the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night. And (F)an angel of the Lord suddenly (G)stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened.”

“But the angel said to them, ‘(H)Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a (I)Savior, who is [c](J)Christ (K)the Lord. (L)This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’”

 “And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
    14(M)Glory to God in the highest,
         And on earth peace among men [d](N)with whom He is pleased.’”   — Luke 2:1-14

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This Day in History 12/21: The Birth of the Crossword Puzzle

If you’ve ever thrown down a pencil at frustration at the New York Times, today’s post is right up your alley.

Today we celebrate the birthday of the crossword puzzle, that criss-cross table of craziness and insanity that has distracted commuters and early risers at Sunday breakfast for decades.  There are two stories to the birth of this puzzle: the first involves an Italian magazine in 1890.  The Italian puzzle had a grid with no diagram i.e. no black squares, so it’s a puzzle, but not really a crossword.

The modern puzzle began on December 21, 1913. when Arthur Wynne, a journalist from Liverpool, Scotland, created a puzzle for the New York World called a “word-cross”.  The names were reversed and a legend was born.

Yet the crossword was not without its critics.  It exploded in the 1920s, and many conservative pundits viewed it as a sign of the loose morals of the period–a passing fad.   According to a 1924 New York Times article, a clergyman called the working of crossword puzzles “the mark of a childish mentality” and said “There is no use for persons to pretend that working one of the puzzles carries any intellectual value with it.”  Some thought the craze would end with the decade. 

Even the New York Times itself, which would become famous for its crossword, was a critic.    In 1924, the Times complained of the “sinful waste in the utterly futile finding of words the letters of which will fit into a prearranged pattern, more or less complex. This is not a game at all, and it hardly can be called a sport… [solvers] get nothing out of it except a primitive form of mental exercise, and success or failure in any given attempt is equally irrelevant to mental development.”

Funny how the Times would start a crossword itself by 1942, and would be the most well-known of puzzles in America and the world, along with the Times of London’s puzzle.

Almost every daily newspaper, including web editions, has some form of the crossword puzzle.  Many, like Will Shortz’ acclaimed Times puzzles, become progressively harder each day of the week, so that by Saturday you just look at it and whimper like a small child about to get paddled.  Crosswords are also a great way for students to stimulate vocabulary–by using common definitions or clues for complex words, students can build their word power and make new connections in their brain, allowing them greater cognitive function.

Here are some websites to some more crosswords fun at home or in the classroom:

Puzzles from USA Today, including Crosswords – okay, so its USA Today; we’re not dealing with the varsity.  Still it’s good practice.

Washington Post Crosswords – these kept me going in college, and are pretty good.  They hold up well to the NYT standard.

Yahoo! Daily Crossword - great to pass the time.

Crossword Puzzles – This one is a great clearinghouse for US and UK crosswords.

New York Times Crossword – The one by which all are measured.  It’s a pay site, so getting the print edition may be cheaper (maybe not).  The ultimate in crossword practice.

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Musings for the Shoveler: Random Thoughts on Snow

Since I’ve been breaking my back shoveling a foot of snow outside, what a better way to relax than to think random thoughts on the white stuff that will eventually give me a heart attack.

Any child goes bananas at the concept of snow.  It was the only time you watched the news with any degree of enthusiasm–just think, a swoop of the radar and “presto!”, no school!

In my house, that depended on the weatherman on duty that morning, or the night before.  As a child watching News 12 on Long Island, it was a waiting game to see who would announce our joy–or our doom.  If Norm Dvoskin was announcing, it was a fair bet that there’s at least a two-hour delay, if not more. 

 Joe Gioffi, on the other hand, was the grim reaper.  The local school districts must’ve paid him off each year, because whenever that bastard went on the air, there was no hope.  It would only be a sprinkle, or the good snow would be “north and west” of the city.  Oh, how we longed to live “north and west”, with all their snow days…

Well, as adults we have a far more complex relationship with snow.  We shovel the stuff.  Our cars slip on the stuff.  You shoo away the kids that want to sled down your driveway.  God forbid it snows during rush hour.  Here are some other grown ups, and their opinions on the subject.

“A lot of people like snow. I find it to be an unnecessary freezing of water.” — Carl Reiner

“Courtesies cannot be borrowed like snow shovels; you must have some of your own.” — John Wanamaker

“I grew up thinking of snow as a luxury you visit.” — John Landis

“I seemed to vow to myself that some day I would go to the region of ice and snow and go on and on till I came to one of the poles of the earth, the end of the axis upon which this great round ball turns.” — Ernest Shackleton

“I used to be Snow White, but I drifted.”  — Mae West

“Minneapolis has two seasons: Road Removal and Snow Repair.” — Steven Brust 

“Snow and adolescence are the only problems that disappear if you ignore them long enough.” — Earl Wilson

“The Eskimos had fifty-two names for snow because it was important to them: there ought to be as many for love.” — Margaret Atwood

“We build statues out of snow, and weep to see them melt.” — Walter Scott

“Unless we make Christmas an occasion to share our blessings, all the snow in Alaska won’t make it ‘white’.” — Bing Crosby

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CALLING ALL TEACHERS! MR. D WANTS TO HEAR YOUR HOLIDAY PARTY STORIES!

The holiday party–every kid wants it, but you, as a teacher, dread the day. 

For those who’ve lived through that last day, it is always memorable.   It moves in slow motion, as the consumption of sugar and salty snacks makes your monsters reach a feer pitch.  At least one piece of school property must be broken, especially when the overzealous kids decide to clean the entire room with buckets of dirty, soapy water.

Don’t even mention how the Secret Santa went.

As we approach the winter break, I would like to compile an anthology of the best stories from your classroom parties.  Did a kid puke into the sink?  Did a pack of boys collide into desks like bowling pins?  Any amusing allergic reactions from the kid who’s allergic to EVERYTHING?  Mr. D wants to know.

I’ll be collecting any stories you have over the next couple of weeks.  No contest, so no pressure–I’m just curious as to how other classes endure the holidays.

We at the Neighborhood look forward to hearing your stories.

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Mr. D’s Guide to the Holidays # 2: Chanukah/Hanukkah

“When you compare Christmas to Chanukah, there’s no comparison. Christmas is great. Chanukah sucks!… First night you get socks.   Second night, an eraser, a notebook. It’s a Back-to-School holiday!” – Lewis Black

Chanukah, the red-headed stepchild of holidays, gets a bum rap, especially from the likes of one of my favorite comedians, Lewis Black. 

True, it is eight days, but the good stuff usually only comes on Day One.  You save on electric bills as your Gentile neighbors make their wattage meters spin like records on a turntable.  Yet you’re still jealous that your house is the only one enshrouded in darkness.  Christmas means all the Chinese food and movie palaces are for the taking (unless you live in Five Towns on Long Island, where you fight for spots with the rabbi’s family with 15 children), but nary a single Chanukah special on the tube to compete with Charlie Brown or the Grinch. 

Is it me, or does the Grinch story seem a little anti-Semitic?  He does, after all learn, that Christmas “doesn’t come from a store.”

Maybe a closer look at this holiday would provide a better appreciation—or simply a further excuse to push it to the margins.

It still surprises people that outside of the United States, Chanukah is a very minor holiday among Jews, even in Israel.  It celebrates a dubious miracle following a victory chronicled in a highly controversial appendix to the Hebrew Scriptures.  The victory in battle is very much a pyrrhic one, as Israel would be conquered yet again within a century, never to see the light of independence until the 20th century.  In fact, the warfare was probably not a freedom fight at all, but rather a civil war between different factions of the same faith. 

Today’s Guide to the Holidays has little to do with dreidels, gelt, latkes or Adam Sandler.  Rather, let’s look closely at the event—and the source material—that spawned this winter celebration.

Here’s the story in a nutshell:

The Selucid Empire of Syria, a Hellenized former client state of Alexander the Great, had ruled Israel since the 3rd Century BCE.  Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the king of Syria, ordered that an altar to Zeus be erected in the Temple of Jerusalem, and that pigs would be sacrificed to the Greek deity.  To a Jewish population that had seen a steady stream of persecution since Antiochus’ coronation, this was the last straw.  Mattathias, a Jewish priest, assembled his sons, including Judah Maccabee (which means “Judah the Hammer”), to lead a 2-year revolt against the Syrians.

The revolt was successful, and the Temple was rededicated in 165 BCE.  But according to the story, there was a problem.  There was only enough olive oil in the menorah, the candlestick in the Temple, to burn for one day.  Miraculously, it burned for eight days before new supplies were found.  Hence, the Festival of Lights is born.

One of the great misconceptions of this story is that it’s Biblical.  It isn’t really.  The Maccabee revolt of the second century BCE is chronicled in the books called First and Second Maccabees.  These books, along with a set of others, are a set of writings that have puzzled biblical scholars for centuries.  Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians label them the Deuterocanonical books, meaning that they are important, but not that important to become full parts of the Bible. 

 Jews and Protestants are more blunt—they call them Apocrypha, which literally means “unknown.” They don’t know where these books fit in the grand scheme of things, nor can scholars agree on their origin or authenticity.  Some say they were written in Hebrew, others in Greek.  Saint Jerome claimed they were written in Hebrew AND Greek, using transliterated Aramaic with Greek characters. 

Yet for all its dubious history, 1 and 2 Maccabees has a glaring omission: what about the miracle of the oil in the menorah?

That story is left largely to the Talmud, the great post-diaspora Jewish commentary on scripture, and one of the great masterpieces of religious scholarship in history.  Like so many parts of Judaica, the menorah miracle comes with debated, detailed instructions on how to celebrate the holiday.  It is, to be sure, the only complete depiction of the Chanukah celebration as we know it.

Now that the source material is out of the way, on to the historic event itself, the Jewish revolt.  This leads to a somewhat less rosy view of the Maccabees today: less George Washington, and more Ayatollah Khomeini.

Many modern scholars do not view the Maccabee revolt as a freedom struggle against an oppressive monarch, but rather a civil war between orthodox and reformist factions of the Jewish religious establishment.  It begins with Alexander the Great.  His conquest of Israel resulted in a Hellenization of Jewish society.  Greek architecture, Greek philosophy, Greek culture, even Greek names were permeating throughout Israel, as they did to other areas touched by Alexander’s iron fist. 

Even the Hebrew alphabet, its difficult characters notwithstanding, has an all-too-familiar connection to Greek.  Letters such as Aleph (Greek=Alpha), Bet (Beta), Gimel (Gamma), Dalet (Delta), Lamed (Lambda), etc. show a tight connection, even if the derivation is up for debate.  It’s probable that Greek and Hebrew developed from a common linguistic ancestor, such as Semitic or Phoenician.  Or, as some would argue, Alexander’s Hellenizing machine further Greeked up the Hebrew alphabet as many elite started to Hellenize their own lifestyles.

Mattathias and the Maccabees were not happy about this.

At first, in keeping with Alexander’s customs, Antiochus IV allowed religious freedom, and did his best to mediate a middle path between the Hellenized Jews and the more traditionalist Jews of the Maccabee faction.  Yet when the traditionalists staged open rebellion against the Syrians (BEFORE the 167-165 BCE revolt), Antiochus openly supported the Hellenist Jews, suppressing traditional religious practices and relaxing certain restrictions—especially the dietary laws.  Look at the story of Hannah and her sons in 2nd Maccabees, and you’ll never look at a pork chop the same way again (2 Macc 6:18–7:42).

Hence, the Maccabee revolt can be seen as a fundamentalist backlash against the intermingling of Greek and Hebrew cultures that happened so easily in other parts of the Hellenistic world.   The Greekness of the new society—which also pitted rich against poor, young against old—led more conservative Jews like Mattathias and Judah Maccabee to see this change as a path toward damnation.  It’ll hurt when some Jews read this, but it sounds a lot like the Iranian Revolution of the late 1970s. 

So does all this mean Jews shouldn’t celebrate Chanukah?  Of course not. 

It simply means that under all the manic craziness, the fights of latke recipes, the drawing straws as to who’ll light the menorah, even little boys roughhousing over a dreidel, lies a complex, often controversial story that’s important, but not as important as holidays with more religious and historic meaning—the High Holidays and Passover.

It’s just the damndest luck that the Festival of Lights had to occur at around the same time as your Gentile neighbors stringing their lights for Christmas. 

Tonight, however, is your night.  Have a happy Chanukah—and save me some gelt.

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