This year, Hanukka fell on Christmas, underscoring the usual comparisons. The proper parallel, however, is Thanksgiving.
The “historical” Hanukka account (from I and II Maccabees) recollects the Maccabean victory over the Greeks and their “collaborating” Jewish “assimilationists.” The Talmud ignores all that and celebrates instead the miraculous survival of a single cruse of oil — myth, not history.
But even the “historical” account is questionable. The Hanukka revolution was no simple “shootout” between good guys and bad. Indeed, the victorious Hasmoneans (or Maccabees) became crueler and more corrupt than the “collaborative” Jewish authorities they defeated.
As to Thanksgiving, we like to trace it to 1621, when Native Americans taught the Pilgrims how to farm, thereby ending a famine and prompting Plymouth Gov. William Bradford to declare a day of Thanksgiving to be celebrated with the Indians.
This Thanksgiving tale omits Bradford’s description of 600 natives who were wantonly put to death by Pilgrims who offered thanks to God for delivering their enemies.
Both holidays attracted selective memories that erase the dismal side of what really happened.
Another case in point arises in the Bible, with the Joseph narrative. First, Joseph’s brothers almost murder him and sell him into slavery; Joseph gets revenge by making them grovel for famine relief, without revealing his identity; yet they are reconciled in brotherly love.
The wary reader suspects this is mostly myth, and the haftara seems to concur. It is a vision by Ezekiel, who looks not back, but forward; Ezekiel knows the tribes have been warring rivals at least since Rehoboam, King Solomon’s successor, whose tyrannical taxation caused the Israelite north to secede from the Judean south. Only in the future will the tribes be united as one family of Israel.
So: a Hanukka story whitewashing a corrupt Hasmonean dynasty, a Thanksgiving tale papering over the massacre of natives, and the Joseph story’s idealization of Israel’s 12 tribes living in accord.
If we persist in telling these stories, it must be for the future they herald, not the past they distort. Ezekiel has it right: only in the future will all Jews be united. The Hanukka tale also looks ahead, not back, to a better Jewish commonwealth than the Maccabees established — our own State of Israel, perhaps, but run with justice for all and untainted by the vices of politics and power. And, however little our Thanksgiving story reflects 17th-century reality, it voices hope that America will one day make good on its promise of a time worthy of shared gratitude.
Is any of this possible? Or will history repeat itself, leaving us with 21st-century realities no less tawdry than the old ones? In all three cases, the jury is out. Economic and religious inequality run rampant in Israel, America’s promise is questionable, and some Jews at least still refuse to recognize others as authentic and worthy.
If we continue telling our stories, it can be only to remember their future, not their past. Maybe some day we’ll see the Jewish people united in mutual regard, an Israeli government fully committed to justice, and an America where natives and newcomers celebrate equality. Our stories should goad us into undying efforts to demand such futures as these: nothing less should do.