Thursday, December 22, 2011

In Honor of Hanukkah . . .

. . . Katrina has decided to take a break from the exhausting task of not-blogging and embark in at least one post of actual blogging. Without further adieu . . .

Hanukkah is a holiday that I both love and hate.

I love it because:

1) It brings back fond memories of my childhood, including making latkes with my mom, singing old Israeli Hanukkah songs with my parents and brother, and yes, getting cool presents. I think the roller-blades were the highlight.

2) Now that I am observant, I appreciate a holiday that is fun, requires little preparation, and does not have restrictions on working, using electricity, cooking, etc. I am doing practically nothing this Hanukkah other than lighting the candles with DH, and I love it.

I hate it because Jews, especially American Jews, have neutered the holiday, and then they complain that it is boring. "How can it compete with Christmas?" everyone from Jon Stewart to SIL says. Well, it can't, if you are talking about the crass commercialism, materialism, and domination of every aspect of American society for a month that Christmas promotes. Christmas also has a nice little man in a red suit that brings presents, and enough light to put your Hanukkiah to shame. AND it has inspired the best Christian music throughout history. NEWSFLASH: "I Have a Little Dreidel" was not written to rival Handel's Messiah. The traditional Jewish music on the High Holidays represents the apex of Jewish musical skill. Most of it is way older than Handel.

This comparison of Hanukkah and Christmas, clearly a doomed proposition from the Jewish side, is of course partially the fault of American Jews, who wanted a holiday with lots of presents to compete with Christmas. That went well.

So what is Hanukkah actually about? What do I mean when we say we have neutered the holiday?

I have been thinking about posting about this for a few days, and then I ran into this article (link here) on Slate. It talks about the fact that Hanukkah was not originally about lights and divine miracles, not that there is anything wrong with either. But the story of the light that was supposed to last for one day and instead lasted for eight was added by the rabbis after the destruction of the Second Temple and the Bar Kokhba Revolt. Originally, Hanukkah was, as Ponet says, a "Jewish civil war," between Jews assimilated into the Hellenistic way of life and the Maccabees, religious zealots who would tolerate no deviation from the way they thought Jewish life had always been. The latter revolted against the former, won, and then "established a Hasmonean state that never ceased fighting Jews who disagreed with its rule."

IRONY ALERT: We American Jews are the Hellenists. The Maccabees would have totally speared us. Just saying.

So Hanukkah is about lights, and divine miracles, and the problems of retaining ones Jewish identity in an appealing majority culture, and the role of zealotry in preserving a particular vision of the Jewish way of life, and the appeal and danger in Jewish military might (hence, as Ponet says, the popularity of the holiday in Israel). These are all issues that could (I am tempted to say "should") resonate with us today.

So you might want to think about them as you are lighting your Hanukkiah and munching on those latkes and sufganiyot.

Happy Hanukkah!


Shira Salamone said...

The trick is to mix the best of Hellenism, and more current influences, into Judaism and keep out the worst. I was taught years ago, by a previous rabbi of ours, that "creative assimilation" is an essential aspect of Jewish survival.

Iiari said...

Again, I love your blog. You're really the only one out there writing from a "conservadox" perspective and it's nice to read. The "conservadox" lifestyle can get kind of lonely!

I recently read an article on whether or not we are Hellenists today, and its answer is that we are not:

It's an interesting thing to think about, but to match the historical parallels, it doesn't wash. We may be assimilationist, but we're not Hellenist. And what's the alternative for someone already observant to being assimilationist? Mimicking the aesthetic and lifestyle of 18th century Eastern Europe? I don't think so...