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Hanukah – A Brief History and a New Tradition (2007)

Are you un-inspired, putting up that crepe paper dreidel again?
Did you ever wonder what was really behind those sing-songy Sunday-school stories about the miracle of the oil?

Warsaw Uprising

Hanukah Wall of Freedom: Warsaw Uprising

How about this one: knowing how you live today, if you were placed back in the Hanukah times, would you have fought with the religious extremist zealots (history’s good guys), or would you have joined up with the more modernizing (yet still bloodthirsty), pan-cultural Helenites? (You’d probably have been killed either way.)

Some thoughts.

(Skip ahead to a new idea for meaningful Hanukah decorations)

Hanukah – A Brief History and a New Tradition

Where does Hanukah come from?
Sometime in November, in my search, I asked the younger P___ sister, Amanda, whether she’d read the Apocrypha. This collection of not-quite-Biblical books includes at least the first 2 books of the Maccabees. Amanda and Rebeccah P___ are the sisters who trade off nanny-ing our boys (and for whom my family is, to borrow Rebeccah’s phraseology, blessed). Amanda is in the divinity school (Jesuit) that Rebeccah graduated from. At any rate, Amanda had heard of Apocrypha, but not read it (them?).

I’ve wanted to read the texts of the Hanukah story, and found that nobody I knew had read these, or had even heard of the source. And how strange, considering that we all read the Megilah, or at least know what it is. Okay, and how strange, considering that we celebrate Hanukah, for instance.

One Christmas day in the Jewish Bookstore
On Christmas day, Karl was working in the ER, and I was out driving, taking Winston and Karl-the-younger around. We’d already gone to the Emeryville Marina, which juts out into the Bay, to try out the boys’ Heelys – sneakers with wheels, they’d gotten from Karl’s parents. Afterward, on a hunch, I took the boys to Afikomen, the Yiddishkeit store in Berkeley. Surprise – they were having a party, with

Hanukah Wall of Freedom - Tianenman Square

Hanukah Wall of Freedom - Tianenman Square

music, wine and cheese, and discounts! We saw a man who substitutes at the boys’ old pre-school – boys were happy to see an old, familiar face. It was a very friendly atmosphere, strangers smiling and greeting, and a funny kind of Jewish gathering, promoted not at all by a Jewish event but by sharing an oasis in the desert hush of the holiday of the outside masses. Crazy – smiling faces and strangers greeting one another: “Say hello to friends you know, and everyone you meet!”, the quintessential Christmas, but really because we were the only ones not celebrating it!

I found, and bought, the Apocrypha, while the boys happily watched a bearded, tallis-fringed band rock out on pleasant, very well-executed, and markedly un-special music. Sadly we’d missed the band playing authentic middle-eastern instruments and music.

The Apocrypha
I’ve only read to the part where Judah M. died, somewhere in the middle of the first book of the Maccabees. I found the account unexpectedly exciting – and filled with brutality. Its reading distracted me from my question as to whether, had I been there at the time, I would have sided with the zealot Maccabees (religious fundamentalist extremists?) or with the Hellenite assimilators (modern relativists with a bloodthirsty twinge?). My question is, of course, embedded in the current-events context of Islamic and Christian fundamentalism. Okay, Jewish too – as Israeli rabbis, priests, and imams put down their enmity for a day last year, to howl in sweet harmony at the Jerusalem Gay Pride event – you know, the usual abomination-horror at witnessing honest and decent people like me.

Oh, what a miserable time in Judea it was, to try simply to live, I imagine, with all these imperial power vectors slamming, crisscross, over the Mideast and Asia Minor to India. Picture yourself deciding whether to circumcise your newborn son, when doing so would bring you death from Antiochus’s troops, and not doing so would earn you death from the Maccabees? I hope the numbers of fallen are exaggerated, and imagine they are, but who knows? At any rate, the writer, narrator, whoever it is, is not at all neutral, but the story doesn’t sound manufactured either. I strongly recommend reading this account from the source.

Hanukah Wall of Freedom - Gloria Steinem

Hanukah Wall of Freedom - Gloria Steinem

The miracle of the oil
By the way, there is no mention or hint of the miracle of the oil.
My guess: the miracle of finding a kosher flask when only un-kashered oil is available is the kind of story that would be valued by a later Talmudic sensibility, among people who had been honing the finer subtleties of kashrut for a long, long time (Mattathias slew Jews who ate pork, not those who ate meat off of dairy dishes). And the amount of work the Maccabean armies and affiliates did during the Temple re-dedication was not small; it was so much more extensive than mopping up after running pigs. They’d have had plenty of time to re-kasher oil enough for well more than eight days. As I heard it, more or less, “They looked around and could only find a bisl flask of sanctified oil, enough to last for one day, whereas it took eight days to make kosher oil”… Goodness gracious, these guys were disassembling the heavy, stone offerings altar, moving the unclean stones off-site and re-building it with new stones. They made new holy dishes – silver I think; re-fitted the priests’ quarters and made new gates and doors. There were loaves of fresh bread. They put up gold and silver decorations and curtains. If kosher oil were so important, they could have, would have, made it happen without a miracle – come on!

So why 8 days of Hanukah? That’s how long the Maccabees celebrated the rededication, and apparently what they decreed that we should celebrate each year. But why 8? Who knows. The story doesn’t say. There are sources, I’m sure, but I haven’t yet found them. (Help me out here, I’m no big scholar.)

You can still have your Latkes
If, like me, you tend toward literalism, and get angry at being judged against human-made extensions to the Commandments (cook a chicken in its mother’s milk and you’ve committed an affront to God), it might irk you that we center our main celebration of Hanukah around a made-up story of a paltry miracle. I tend toward believing that enhancing the basic pieces of truth gives us a pressure valve that allows us to avoid examining and learning from truth’s subtleties – subtleties, for instance, like the knowledge that the Maccabees were tough SOBs, and were ruthless because they cared, and because their people were being slaughtered for caring. Of course, you might believe that the stories we create are important as sign-posts to guide us through our personal and cultural psyches. Maybe, for instance, the Talmudic scholars lived in circumstances where they didn’t have the resources, cultural upbringing, training or temperament to be Maccabees, and so their version de-emphasized self-help in favor of miracles received; is

Hanukah Wall of Freedom - Cesar Chavez

Hanukah Wall of Freedom - Cesar Chavez

the miracle story merely a pressure valve that allows ourselves not to feel bad about being less than victors, lesser than Maccabees? Do we go on to judge that they gave themselves, and then to us, this way to forgive or overlook one’s own powerlessness or lack of resolve, or do we give these guys a break in their own tough times? Either way, if you do enjoy and value Talmudic tradition, that shouldn’t mean that we can’t enjoy the celebration of the miracle – should it? (Okay, and without the miracle, would we have to replace our tasty latkes and donuts with an overcooked rump roast to honor those tough-ass Maccabees? Hey – my latkes were really excellent this year!)

But one thing is clear throughout the story: the Temple stood as the singular symbol and attribution of holiness, as well as a cultural center of identity. Even against the “backdrop” of fighting immense and targeted brutality, and against the attention-robbing, bloody attempts at cultural extermination pursued by Antiochus’s army, the Maccabees took the Temple’s holiness extremely seriously – enough to rededicate it in the midst of the long war. Sadly, after its laborious re-sanctification and rededication, the story and conflict do not end. Even during the cleansing, there were fortifications and guards watching against the ever-present enemy forces.

In Hebrew School, I’d more or less learned that the Maccabean armies finished creaming the enemy, and when they were done, they looked and saw that the Temple was desecrated. So they rededicated it and lived on in victory (-and peace? Not sure). But this is so very distorted. It’s a victory, yes, though the Maccabee brothers and many of their fighters do die in violence. Okay, not so long afterward, the Jews do make a peace and mutual protection treaty with Rome.

Building a new tradition
Hanukah is a holiday that seems to me much more meaningful and tender, maybe even shocking and Jewish-instructive, to see that they valued the holy traditions enough to re-erect the Jewish center of holiness while fighting armies all around them (and fighting against really poor odds).

Hanukah Wall of Freedom - Full View

Hanukah Wall of Freedom - Full View

Somehow this is so much more impressive to me than is the story of the oil. I think self-identifying Jews, those who bother “living Jewish” when it’s easier not to (including those in mixed-marriages but teaching Jewish heritage to their children), should be reading a portion of this story on Hanukah as we read the Megilah on Purim: in Shul, in the evening, with the balagan of kids running around, stopping to make the important points, and with 4th graders acting these out on the Bimah. Or at least we should be telling why Hanukah actually came about. Esther and Judah were very different, but both are crucially instructive to a diaspora people who try to survive as a dispersed culture (and in the face of general enmity). And both might lead us to contemplate the complexity of pros and cons of assimilative “dis-integration”. Esther’s is a story of a pretty girl who finds within herself so much more: the guts, brains, and grace to bring about her people’s saving (instead of riding her beauty and fortune to her own lone refuge). Judah’s is a story of a bunch Jews who care that much, and who put it all on the line and stand up and die for what they believe in. We don’t have another such holiday, do we? This is why Warsaw Uprising fighters and that Chinese guy standing up to the Tiananmen Square tanks, Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela, and others, appear on my Hanukah wall of freedom (Stephen Colbert is there, and for good reason).
(–But why was it so hard, even on the Web, to find more Jews to put up on that wall? And I’m not talking about actors or baseball players, famous people we typically claim for happening to have one or two identifiably Jewish parents – Goldie Hawn, et al.. That exercise had its purpose, but this is different.)

Hanukah Wall of Freedom - Stephen Colbert

Hanukah Wall of Freedom - Stephen Colbert

Make your own Hanukah Wall of Freedom
Here’s an idea for next year, especially if hanging another crepe-paper dreidel leaves you un-moved, or if you’re watching your lipids: why not make your own Hanukah wall of freedom?

Invite each family member or roommate or women’s group member to “own” the picture of someone who stood up for what they think is right, and against steep odds. Owning could mean being responsible for telling their story on a night of Hanukah, whether a short or lengthy version. The Entebbe rescue? ACT-UP? Gloria Steinem? A kid in your school? Ideally each will be someone real, to encourage the need to look at real-life complexities. This year we printed and cut out these pictures, mounting each on colored paper shaped like the star of David. What we did, then, was to use Christmas ornament hanging wires to hang these along a sparkly blue Mylar garland on the wall. And we talked about the people, my young kids memorizing their stories and “filing” these among ones they learn in school, like that of Martin Luther King Jr.

What else?
I’d love to read 3 other Maccabee accounts from people involved at the time, but with differing perspectives. And I’m beginning to get a picture of the cultures in the land not long before Jesus was born, and soon after, when people had to sort themselves out – allegiance, religion, identity, peoplehood. Even during the Maccabees’ time, it seems there were three different “Jewish” peoples who were only loosely aligned – maybe mostly around their shared worship of the Tanakh – I’m not sure. It seems, too, that the various sects holed up in Safed and in caves near the Dead Sea, and yelling sermons in the streets of the cities, were in a most dynamic flux. If I get around to reading these, I might be fascinated. Maybe I’ll check out Shabbatai Tsvi? I’ve already seen Life of Brian. I think Rebecca and Amanda could help me out with this.

Anyway, I’ll transcribe a few paragraphs below, outlining the Hanukah celebration’s text.
From The First Book of Maccabees:

And the whole army gathered together, and they went up to Mount Zion. And they found the sanctuary desolated and the altar polluted and the doors burned up, and the weeds growing in the courts as they do in a wood or on some mountain, and the priests’ quarters torn down. And they tore open their clothes and uttered great lamentation and covered themselves with ashes, and fell on their faces on the ground, and sounded the ceremonial trumpets, and cried out to heaven. Then Judas appointed men to fight the garrison in the citadel, until he should purify the sanctuary. And he appointed priests that were without blemish and adherents of the Law, and the purified the sanctuary and carried out the stones that had defiled it to an unclean place. And they deliberated as to what they should do about the altar of burnt offering, which had been polluted. And a good idea occurred to them – to take it down, so that it might never be thrown up to them that the heathen had polluted it; so they took down the altar and deposited the stones in the temple mountain, in a suitable place, until a prophet should come and declare what should be done with them. And they took whole stones, as the Law required, and built the sanctuary and the interior of the temple and consecrated the courts. And they made new holy dishes and they brought the lampstand and the altar of incense and the table into the temple. And they burned incense on the altar, and lighted the lamps on the lampstand, and they lighted the temple. And they put the loaves of bread on the table and hung up the curtains, and completed all the work they had undertaken.

And they arose early on the twenty-fifth day of the ninth month, that is, the month of Chislev, in the one hundred and forty-eighth year, and offered sacrifice according to the Law upon the new altar of burnt offering which they had made. At the time and on the day the heathen had polluted it, it was rededicated with songs and harps and lutes and cymbals. And all the people fell on their faces and blessed heaven which had prospered them. And they celebrated the rededication of the altar for eight days and offered burnt offerings with joy, and offered a sacrifice of deliverance and praise. And they decorated the front of the temple with gold crowns and small shields and rededicated the gates and the priests’ quarters, and fitted them with doors. And there was very great joy among the people, and the reproach the heathen had cast upon them was wiped out. And Judas and his brothers and all the congregation of Israel decreed that the days of the rededication of the altar should be observed at their season, every year, for eight days, beginning with the twenty-fifth of the month of Chislev, with gladness and joy. At that time they built high walls and strong towers around Mount Zion, so that the heathen might not come and tread them down as they had done before. And he established a force there to hold it, and he fortified Bethsura to hold it, so that the people might have a stronghold facing Idumea.

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One Response

  1. Oh my god! what don’t you know?!
    (I grew up with Channukah being the only Jewish holiday ALLOWED in my Socialist family. Each year we were sat around while my mother would expound on the ” people rising up and overthrowing their oppressors”. I kid you not. Can you see me rolling my eyes? Now, Yom Kippur, that’s a party . . . )
    Rebecca

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