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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