Last week, at a gathering of interfaith clergy, we formed small groups and shared our answers to the question: Which of the winter holidays is most important to you? The choices were Christmas, Chanukah, Advent, Kwanzaa, and New Year’s.
When my turn came, I felt like the Grinch who stole Christmas. Or maybe the Grinch who stole Chanukah. The Christian clergy spoke beautifully about the joy and power of celebrating the birth of their savior. I just couldn’t muster up the same enthusiasm for Chanukah, and it irritated me even to have to answer the question. Which of the holidays is most important to you? None of the above. I believe Jesus was a great rabbi and leader, but he is not my savior. The principles of Kwanzaa are admirable, but my roots are not in Africa. I already have a very meaningful New Year and I don’t need another one, especially one whose main tradition is drunken revelry. Advent… (see Christmas).
So, by default that leaves Chanukah.
Chanukah is great when you are a child or have young children or grandchildren. Since I now do not fall into any of those categories, Chanukah is just not that important to me. The candles are pretty and the latkes are yummy, but my husband and I don’t play dreidel by ourselves, and we certainly don’t need to give each other gifts.
So, what do to with this holiday that we are almost required to celebrate because it is the holiday season? As if it’s not bad enough that it is a minor holiday that has been glorified by its proximity to Christmas, there is the whole problem of the story of Chanukah.
I grew up in a very secular family, so the miracle of the oil was downplayed. We focused on the brave Maccabees —the tiny band of heroic freedom fighters who defeated the powerful Greek army. It’s a great story, but as I got older, I discovered that it wasn’t the whole story; maybe it wasn’t even the true story. Maybe the Maccabees were extremists who were really fighting other Jews who were content to assimilate some aspects of Greek culture.
Real history is always more complicated than the myths we hand down.
A congregant asked me recently if I could recommend a book about Chanukah that her son could read to his preschool children. Her son, she added, would want it to be historically accurate. That one had me stumped. How could you possibly explain the real story of Chanukah to preschoolers?
In addition to the brave Maccabee heroes, the Chanukah story has heroines too. There is Hannah, who watched her seven sons be killed for refusing to eat pork and then killed herself. And there is Judith, who stood up to a greater power by luring Holofernes into his tent, getting him drunk, and then chopping off his head.
Do we really want to teach this to our children?! For that matter, do we really want to celebrate these heroes? Are these the stories we want to pass on?
I wonder — instead of passing on these stories to future generations, might we use Chanukah as a time to reflect on assimilation? Maybe we could ask ourselves why Chanukah is the most popular Jewish holiday If we want to honor the spirit of this holiday, we might have to commit to celebrating more of the Jewish holidays. If we love the lights of Chanukah, maybe we could light candles on Friday evenings, not just for eight nights in December.
Throughout Jewish history, more often than not, fighting against greater powers has led to destruction, defeat, and exile. What has enabled us to survive as a people is a combination of adapting to the cultures around us and maintaining our distinct beliefs and customs.
There are times when we need brave freedom fighters and military victories. More often, we need the quiet determination to live as Jews and pass on our love of Judaism and its traditions and values. Every person who has done that is a hero in my eyes. That is worth celebrating every day.
Hannah Orden is the rabbi of the Reconstructionist-affiliated Congregation Beth Hatikvah in Summit. She is a past president of the Summit Interfaith Council and is a founding and active member of the council’s anti-racism committee.