What follows is my annual defense of Chanukah’s ascendancy in contemporary American Jewry. I most cogently did this last year with “A holiday for every Jew, a holiday for today’s Gaza.” I wrote this one for Jewcy when I was in high school. And I touched on a bit of obscure Talmud Chanukah material here.
As a kid, presents and latkes made Chanukah my favorite holiday. As a college student, presents and donuts do the job. But that’s not all.
As a holiday, Chanukah works on nearly every level and it may actually be full of more layers and symbolism than any other. (Passover is a close second in my book, but lacks the twists and turns of history that Chanukah has taken.) So here, after a few blog-years of doing this piecemeal, is every level on which Chanukah works that I can think of. And I’m always looking for more.
Basic winter solstice holiday — OR — How Adam invented Chanukah
The Rabbis are discussing various pagan winter solstice celebrations, which happen to last for eight days. They discuss Calenda and Saturnalia. Then we get a real wild card of a story.
“The Rabbis taught in a Baraita: When Adam, the first man, experienced the first winter of creation and saw the duration of each successive daytime gradually decreasing, he said, ‘Woe is to me! Perhaps I have sinned. It is becoming a darkened world for me, and the world is returning to a state of astonishing emptiness; and this then is the form that death sentence decreed upon me from heaven will take.’
“So at the very end of the fall, when the days were at their shortest, Adam arose and engaged in fasting and prayer for eight days. However, once he experienced the winter solstice, and then saw the duration of each successive daytime gradually increasing, he said, ‘It is the natural course of the world for the days to lengthen and shorten in regular cycles.’
“He went and established eight festival days. The following year, he established these days preceding the winter solstice and those days following the winter solstice ad festival days.
“He established them for the sake of heaven, but the idolaters of future generations corrupted them and established them for the sake of idolatry.”
Great basic origin story – OR – Who doesn’t love sticking it to the man?
The original story of the holiday is a basic story of an underdog victory. From Chanukah to Star Wars, people love to root for the rebels! And Americans in particular have a thing for sticking it to the man, so go ahead, celebrate Chanukah in your best Rock and Roll spirit! (To help, I highly recommend DeLeon’s version of Ocho Kandelikas, the most rocking Chanukah recording ever.)
Ritual innovation – OR – Hey, where’d that extra branch on the menorah come from?
In an age when being ritually innovative often draws the ire of an increasingly conservative Jewish religious right, remember that this holiday’s greatest symbol, indeed one of the best known symbols of any Jewish holiday amongst average Americans, is an example of ritual innovation at its best. This is no willy-nilly hacking and slicing of the liturgy. Rather, this is a brilliant co-option of a symbol of the Temple for a holiday that commemorates its restoration. In my opinion, it’s the coolest ritual object/action in Jewish tradition.
Relevance in Israel (Part I) – OR – The Maccabees and the Gazans
Palestinians and Israelis are dying today in an occupied territory. I don’t pretend to know who is good in this conflict and who is bad. Probably, there is no good guy and no bad guy in Israel today. But Chanukah is the story of Jews under occupation, seeking their right to self-determination. And in Gaza today, some people we like to think of as enemies are doing the same thing.
Relevance in Israel (Part II) – OR – Yom Ha’atzma’ut and Chanukah
Though it’s not as big a deal in Israel as it is here, Chanukah is an ascendant holiday there as well. And it should be no surprise. The Zionist narrative contains many parallels to the revolutionary narrative of the Hasmoneans.
Reversal of roles – OR – Who doesn’t love a little historical irony?
So the Maccabees beat the Hellenist Seleucid army of Antiochus “The God You Can See!” Epiphanes. Then they established a new monarchy under the Hasmonean dynasty. And a few generations later, sold out to some latter day Hellenists, the Romans, whose bath houses and political rule they welcomed into second Temple-period Jerusalem.
Relevance in America (Part I) – OR – Here’s the Christmas part of the post
I hate Christmas. I hated it when I was a kid. I hate it now. It’s not mine, but it’s getting shoved down my throat everywhere I go this time of year. And I’m not gonna deny that it’s nice to have something just as good to clutch on to this time of year.
Relevance in America (Part II) – OR – Fighting assimilation
As something of a Rawlsian, I’ve got no problem being a part of an expansive, pluralistic society. Yet, I want to hang on to a unique identity other than my identity as a member of broader Wester culture. The danger of being treated as equal citizens of a society is that it’s harder for your uniqueness to get reinforced and that uniqueness can be eroded. So in this country, the most accepting of Jews any country has ever been (I’m gonna go ahead and include Israel in that), it’s good to have a holiday with a message about fighting the forces of assimilation.
Relevance in America (Part III) – OR – Facing our own demons
Modern, predominantly liberal American Jewry is often in conflict with the fundamentalist right. I suppose that’s true everywhere, whether it’s a Christian or a Muslim right. Either way, let’s face facts. The Maccabees, who we celebrate during Chanukah, were zealous fundamentalists, hellbent on the destruction of the intellectual, cosmopolitan way of life being practiced by hellenized Jews at the time. That’s a powerful demon to face.
Relevance in America (Part IV) – OR – The narrative of a narrative
The meta-narrative of how Chanukah came to occupy the place it does in America is fascinating. From an “unimportant holiday” to the most widely-known Jewish holiday in America, Chanukah has had quite a journey. When I was kid, I remember constantly hearing about how Chanukah wasn’t really that important. Now, every year I read jbloggers like myself crying out in defense of Chanukah as immanently relevant to modern life. The journey of this time of year from the Christmas Season to the Holiday Season is a remarkable story itself of the growing social concern for religious minorities in America.
Talmudic interference – OR – The Rabbis are lying to you
Unlike just about every other holiday, Chanukah doesn’t get its own tractate of Talmud. But it does come up in the midst of a debate about what kind of candles are appropriate for Shabbat. “What about Chanukah?” asks one Rabbi. “What’s Chanukah?” asks the text in response. Suddenly, some Rabbi is pulling out of his ass the story of the eight-night miracle of the oil, created by Rabbis to assuage the Romans. The Rabbis didn’t like folk holidays to begin with, but accepting that Chanukah wasn’t going anywhere, they created this story, in the hopes that it would be more palatable to their oppressors that the fiercely nationalistic and militaristic true story of Chanukah. This, by the way, may be my favorite of Chanukah’s many layers.
It’s just plain fun – OR – PRESENTS! LATKES!
Rabbi Abraham P. Bloch has written that “The tradition of giving money (Chanukah gelt) to children is of long standing. The custom had its origin in the seventeenth-century practice of Polish Jewry to give money to their small children for distribution to their teachers. In time, as children demanded their due, money was also given to children to keep for themselves. Teen-age boys soon came in for their share. According toMagen Avraham (18th cent.), it was the custom for poor yeshiva students to visit homes of Jewish benefactors who dispensed Chanukah money (Orach Chaim 670).” [Wikipedia]
At the end of the day, we just have to acknowledge that, however it happened, we’ve developed a pretty fun holiday. It’s the only holiday we’ve got that’s making no bizarre requirements of your diet or daily life. It’s tasty and warm and the kids (including this big kid) like it. So shut up and enjoy.
Chappy Chanukah, jblogosphere.