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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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Who “owns” the Holocaust? – The delicate nature of genocide

Sometimes it’s probably best to not lead with a picture, and today is one of those days in the Neighborhood.

Few subjects have as many landmines in the popular discussion as the Holocaust.   It is often extremely difficult to think about this horror in an objective way, and with good reason.  Many people today–Jews and non-Jews, friends, relatives and acquaintances–still have primary knowledge of those horrific years.  My own great-uncle was sent to a concentration camp in Austria during the war.  Another relative was sent to the Russian front, never to be seen again. 

My mind returned to those dark times through a recent Daily News article.  Apparently, the Holocaust Memorial Park in Brooklyn is about to get a facelift by the city Parks Department–adding five new markers to commemorate the non-Jewish victims of Nazi Germany, such as Roma (Gypsies), Jehovah’s Witnesses and homosexuals.  The local Jewish community is in an uproar over this, stating that the city acted unilaterally and that the additions undermine the Jewish nature of the memorial.  The city is defending the addition as a way to “reinforce its educational purpose to remind us of the historical circumstances of the Holocaust.”

What struck me the most was Assemblyman Dov Hikind’s remark.  Hikind (D-Brooklyn) is an orthodox Jew, represents a heavily Jewish district and is descended from Holocaust survivors.  At a news conference to draw attention to the memorial, Hikind mentioned that “The Holocaust is a uniquely Jewish event.”

The fact that the Holocaust is a major, if not the major, even in modern Jewish history is beyond dispute.  Yet to label it as “uniquely” Jewish seemed rather off-putting.  After all, how much should an ethnic group–even one with such a tumultuous history as the Jews–take ownership of a tragedy that imperiled their very existence?

To be fair, in terms of sheer numbers, Jews can easily claim the Holocaust as a tragedy that specifically targeted Jews.  6 million Jews–roughly 60% of the Jewish population of Europe–perished in the slaughter, slashing the worldwide Jewish population by a third. 

Yet other groups also suffered at the hands of the Nazis.  2 million non-Jewish Poles also succumbed to the tragedy.  13.7 million Russians cannot be discounted, either.  There were also 1-1.5 million Gypsies who died, 250,000 physically or mentally challenged people, 50,000 homosexuals, 200,000 Freemasons, 1,500 Jehovah’s Witnesses, and thousands of Communists, trade unionists, pacifists, dissenters, and Christian clergy of every denomination.

Most of the actual planning of the “Final Solution” had the Jews in mind as a “storage problem,” as borne out in the transcripts of the 1942 Wannsee Conference in Berlin.  Other groups, however, also sustained persecution in a systematic manner.  Homosexuals had been targeted even before the Nazi period, through imperial Germany’s anti-sodomy law, Paragraph 175.   The T-4 euthanasia program, which targeted the mentally and physically handicapped, became the basis for the methods used in the death camps of the east. 

None of this is meant to belittle the experience of Jews in the Holocaust.  Rather, it is meant to place the suffering of the Holocaust in a broader context, especially in showing the universal nature of Nazi hatred.  It wasn’t just Jews that stoked their fire–ANYONE who wasn’t the Aryan ideal had to be out of the picture, else they ruin the facade.  This is probably the rationale of the city in placing the five new markers.

There is also this problem of “owning” the Holocaust, making it strictly a Jewish experience.  The problem with placing ownership–even if it is deserved–is that it sometimes places an implicit value judgement on another person’s experience.  Yet this is not always the case.  Often, I have found that actual Holocaust survivors are the most empathetic to others who have suffered the horrors of genocide, such as Bosnians, Armenians, and Tutsis.  It is those generations that succeed the survivors that sometimes grips to ownership, that often compare every event to the Holocaust such that no other group could have suffered like they did.

It’s amazing that the more removed we become from the experience, the less objective we can become about it.  In most instances, it’s the other way around.  Much the same problem happens with another sticking point–policies toward Israel.  My Israeli friends tend to take a fairly open-minded, balanced approach to the problems of their country.  Yet many who have, at best, a remote connection to Israel are ready to defend it against any real or perceived slight, often while distorting or ignoring factual information.

As bad as genocidal situations can be, we must often take a step back to look at the facts from a different perspective.  Believe me, looking at any lens, the suffering of Jews and other oppressed minorities in the 1930s and 1940s is a catastrophe beyond compare.  It is a shame that we often have to use rhethoric to drown out the loud, clear voice of fact. 

So if I had to counter Assemblyman Hikind, this is what I would say:

“Assemblyman, I understand your pain and ardor at an arbitrary and unilateral change to a monument in your community.  The fact that community leaders were not consulted is truly reprehensible.  However, your claim that the Holocaust is a ‘uniquely Jewish’ event belittles the suffering your ancestors endured, as well as the suffering of so many more.

Let me be clear: your mother was a hero.  I feel all survivors of the Holocaust are heroes.  Yet you speak as if you were there with them.  You were not, nor was I.  Let us not claim a heroism that doesn’t exist.

As much as the pain of the Holocaust still dwells in Jews across the world, we are now at a point where we can–and should–see these events through a different lens.  Those lenses are the eyes and ears of the millions of other victims who were persecuted simply for who they were.  To label the Holocaust as ‘uniquely’ Jewish diminishes their suffering and demeans the memory of Jewish survivors and victims–survivors like your mother.

The Holocaust–by spirit, and by numbers–is a tragedy shared by many people, Jew and non-Jew alike.  Nothing can diminish its evil; the numbers are simply too staggering to even contemplate.  Yet keeping ownership of this catastrophe does diminish the good that the Holocaust can teach to others.  Future generations have to learn that prejudice and bigotry, in ANY form and against ANYONE, is immoral, unjust and against the tenets of every major religion.  Don’t diminish the suffering of others in glorifying your own.”

Mr. Hikind is more than free to post a response on this blog, if he so chooses.  I’m looking forward to his, any other, responses.

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