a freylikhen shushan purim!

Wishing you and yours a most joyous Shushan Purim from New York!

The following Purim schtick video is brought to you by some of your favourite Jews from the Jewish Theological Seminary:

Obama makes Thanksgivingukah statement

Whether you love it or hate it, “Thanksgivingukah” has reached the highest political echelon of America: President Barak Obama issued a Thanksgivingukah best wishes. Complete with recipes for the dual holiday by Susan Barocas of DC-based Jewish Food Experience! Full message pasted below the fold.

Michelle and I send warm wishes to all those celebrating Hanukkah.

For the first time since the late 1800s – and for the last time until some 70,000 years from now – the first day of Hanukkah falls on Thanksgiving. It’s an event so rare some have even coined it “Thanksgivukkah.” As we gather with loved ones around the turkey, the menorah, or both, we celebrate some fortunate timing and give thanks for miracles both great and small.

Like the Pilgrims, the Maccabees at the center of the Hanukkah story made tremendous sacrifices so they could practice their religion in peace. In the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, they reclaimed their historic homeland. But the true miracle of Hanukkah was what came after those victories almost 2200 years ago – the Jewish Temple was cleansed and consecrated, and the oil that was sufficient for only one day lasted for eight. As the first Hanukkah candle is lit, we are reminded that our task is not only to secure the blessing of freedom, but to make the most of that blessing once it is secure.

In that spirit Michelle and I look forward to joining members of the Jewish community in America, in the State of Israel, and around the world as we work together to build a future that is bright and full of hope. From my family to yours, Chag Sameach.

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Oops, the Maccabeats Were Kinda Mean

When I saw the link for the new Maccabeats video, I was excited! Another song to play ad nauseum on youtube as I sit in my office. Those Maccabeats, they’re so catchy. And I love showing the videos to my students.

Then, a friend’s comment gave me pause. She noted that this video (now “unlisted” on youtube) was (probably inadvertently) really awful to Sigma Delta Tau (ΣΔΤ, pronounced “SDT”), a national (and it just so happens, historically Jewish) sorority.

Full disclosure, I was in a (different) sorority at a large state school and am a graduate/alumna in good standing. I was in the sorority for the food, mostly, and didn’t really enjoy it like many of my friends did. It (being in a sorority) seemed like the thing to do at my school, so I did it. While I felt that the Greek system was mostly silly, some of my friends flat-out hated it. My feelings of mild dislike for the system and my modicum of tolerance for the silliness within the walls of my own house stayed with me for the 4 years of school and beyond.

Sigma Delta Tau is a national sorority, formed in 1917 when other sororities at Cornell closed their doors to these Jewish women. Today, many chapters of ΣΔΤ exist, and while they’re no longer 100% Jewish, they are filled with lovely (and, I’m sure, not-so-lovely) young ladies who enjoy the sorority life. I’ve always said that if a ΣΔΤ existed at my school, I would’ve joined it, because I like that the letters look like EAT.

In the video, a pack of stereotypical high school bullies (decked out in Glee-like letterman jackets and hats with Greek letters on them) harasses a kid at his locker. Too bad ΣΔΤ is not a fraternity. It is not a group of high school boys. (If I had to guess, I’d hazard that the Maccabeats chose the letters on the hats of their video’s bullies because the Greek characters look like “EAT.”)  Why use letterman jackets and Greek letters to transform “nice” guys into “mean” guys, just by throwing on some emblematic gear?  Bullies come in all shapes and sizes, and by stereotyping Greeks and Greek life, you’re not really doing much better than the people you’re attempting to mock.

Maccabeats. Guys. You have to “earn” your letters when you join a Greek house. The nice girls of ΣΔΤ wouldn’t just give their letters to mean high school boys. In fact, a quick perusal of their website shows that, as a national sorority, Sigma Delta Tau supports organizations like Jewish Women International. If you’re going to use Greek letters, do your research. I don’t care if your school doesn’t have a Greek system. Don’t (inadvertently, I hope) falsely make a Greek organization out to be a bunch of teenage bullies.

I know there’s a Greek aspect to the Chanukah story. Those Greeks and the kids in Greek letter organizations are totally different.

It’s Chanukah, guys. Time to rededicate your video. Fix your error. Or, at the very least, apologize to the women of ΣΔΤ.

Beaking Bad


New Thanksgivukah cartoon for American Associates, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

A Thanksgivukkah Manifesto

Guest post by Rabbi Mishael Zion

Rabbi Mishael Zion is the co-Director of the Bronfman Fellowships, a diverse community of 1,000 young Jewish leaders from North America and Israel. He is the author of “A Night to Remember: The Haggadah of Contemporary Voices”. Mishael blogs at Text and the City and in 2013 was named one of ten “Rabbis to Watch” by Newsweek/the Daily Beast.

A once in a century holiday is upon us. The menurkey will soon sit at the table with the pumpkin pie and the latkes. Let us not underestimate this moment for the American Jewish community. Thanksgivukkah is here.

Jews have always loved Thanksgiving. Now that their favorite American holiday finds itself face to face with America’s favorite Jewish holiday – Hanukkah – the encounter can say an enormous amount about the American Jewish collective story. In other words, Thanksgivukkah tells us something important about what Jews are doing in America.

It starts with good timing. When Hanukkah falls on Christmas, it highlights Judaism as a religion, a fair contender on the scene of American denominations. But Thanksgivukkah yanks the carpet from under the convenient Christmas-Hanukkah dichotomy.

The Thanksgiving of today grew out of its religious roots. The same could be said of the Judaism of many Americans. Thanksgiving is about America, but not in a celebration of patriotic triumphalism. It’s about America as a promise, an idea, a project. If, any other year, most American Jews sideline Judaism and celebrate Thanksgiving simply as Americans, this year’s calendar demands owning up to the Jewish take on the American story.
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Thanksgivukkah FAQ

(Crossposted to Jewschool.)

As many of you know by now, November 28, 2013, will be both (American) Thanksgiving and the 1st day of Chanukah! The possibilities are endless: deep-fried turkey; latkes with cranberry sauce and gravy; pumpkin sufganiot; I’m sure you have more in mind. This week an article by Jonathan Mizrahi on this calendar issue has been making the rounds. It has some excellent graphs illustrating both the rarity of Thanksgivukkah in our present era and the long-term drift of the calendar that will make Thanksgivukkah impossible in the future, but it somewhat overstates its primary claim that Chanukah and Thanksgiving are “a once in eternity overlap”. This FAQ answers some questions that this article has inspired in various other forums, and corrects a few nuances.

Many thanks to Stephen P. Morse for creating an excellent tool to answer calendar questions quickly (though if he’s reading this, I’d love to see the capability of going beyond 9999 CE, and of distinguishing between Adar and Adar I), and to Remy Landau for providing the raw data on the Rosh Hashanah drift (though if he’s reading this, what’s with the popup ads?).

If you have questions that aren’t answered here, we’ll try to answer them in the comments (and if there are a lot, we’ll put together a sequel).

1. What is causing the long-term drift in the calendar?

You’ll notice from Mizrahi’s graph that the Jewish holidays shift significantly from one year to the next (like seasonal variations in the weather), but also (on average) slowly drift later over long time periods (like climate change). The year-to-year shifts are because the Hebrew calendar is primarily a lunar calendar, and 12 lunar months are approximately 354 days – much shorter than the solar year of ~365.25 days. Without any correction, the Jewish holidays would continue to move ~11 days earlier every year. (This is what happens with the Islamic calendar, in which every year is 12 lunar months without exception, so over several decades the Muslim holidays traverse the entire solar year.) In order to keep the Jewish holidays roughly aligned with the solar year (so that Pesach is always in spring, etc.), an month is added every few years, so Jewish “leap years” have 13 lunar months instead. As the Greek astronomer Meton discovered, 235 lunar months (=19*12 + 7) are approximately equal to 19 solar years, so if we put the calendar on a 19-year cycle, and add an extra month to 7 out of every 19 years, it mostly works out.

BUT NOT EXACTLY. 235 lunar months add up to 6939 days 16 hours 595 parts. (In Jewish calendar math, “parts” are the basic subdivisions of an hour, instead of minutes and seconds. There are 1080 parts in an hour, so 595 parts is about 33 minutes.) In the Gregorian calendar, 19 solar years (on average) are 6939 days 14 hours 626 parts. That’s about a 2-hour difference. So the Jewish holidays (on average) shift about 2 hours later during each 19-year cycle, which adds up to a full day every 231 years.

2. Is this an issue of Julian vs. Gregorian calendars?

Not really. 19 Julian years (on average) are 6939 days 18 hours. So if the Gregorian calendar is closest to the actual solar year, the Jewish calendar is doing better than the Julian calendar at approximating it (but still not well enough). (Think of it this way: By definition, the Julian calendar deviates from the Gregorian calendar by 3 days every 400 years. The Jewish calendar deviates by slightly less than 2 days in the same time period.)

3. But there’s some mechanism in place to correct this drift before it gets out of hand, right?

Nope. If no action is taken, the Jewish calendar will continue to drift later and later, until Pesach is in summer, Rosh Hashanah is in winter, etc. And it’s not clear how any action could be taken, since there’s no Jewish pope or Sanhedrin or any sort of body empowered to act on behalf of the whole Jewish people. But on the bright side, (as Mizrahi mentions) if we wait tens of thousands of years, we’ll loop all the way around to where we started.

The Catholics do have a pope, and so even though Easter is on a similar 19-year cycle, they’ve instituted corrections to keep it from drifting. Easter and Pesach usually coincide, but in the years when they’re a month apart instead, let’s just say it’s not Easter’s fault.
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My favorite Kickstarter OTD

Geltfriend Chanukah Sweaters.

I don’t know these people at all. I just stumbled across this on Facebook. But I’m charmed and want to make sure they get the additional two grand they need in the next day to make this go. Don’t be a hazzer! Contribute!

Crowe to play Aronofsky’s Noah

Russell Crowe
Dario Cantatore/Getty Images Russell Crowe

Following Earth Day it seemed appropriate to share that Academy-ward winning actor Russell Crowe will star in director Darren Aronofsky’s (Black Swan) feature film about the biblical boat builder, Noah. The film will be released spring 2014.  Crowe’s depiction of Jewish detective Richie Roberts in American Gangster keeps coming to mind, how he was such an everyman.  Now he’ll get to be an ish tzaddik tamim haya b’dorotav (A righteous man in his generation). Exciting. Hunky. Noah.  I can’t wait for the musical. I wanna hear Crowe say, “I’m on a boat!”

The news comes on the heels of the quite public demise of another epic on The Maccabees following a biblical meltdown by esrt-while anti Semite Mel Gibson toward his scriptwriter Joe Ezterhaus, who brought us quality films like Showgirls.

“The news prompted the “Basic Instinct” writer to allege in a letter posted by the Wrap that Gibson, who was to produce and possibly direct the film, never wanted to make it because, as Eszterhas said of Gibson, “You hate Jews.”

N0 kidding, Joe?  News to us… Who wants to eat?

New Music Review: Chana Rothman’s Beautiful Land: A Labour of Love

In today’s popular American culture, expecting celebrities often recede from the limelight while pregnant. In her new EP, Beautiful Land, singer/songwriter Chana Rothman actively embraces the opportunity to channel her creative energy into an unforgettable musical journey, specifically during her pregnancy. The result is a celebration of life, brimming with heartfelt empathy, mesmerising grooves, and earthy splendor.

 

Photo by Elise Warshavsky

In just six tracks, Rothman creates a universe, transporting the listener to a different realm, one in which emotional honesty and whimsical funkiness reign supreme. Rothman’s music resides somewhere between the intersection of pop, folk, and ethnic, but she transcends all of them. As Rothman’s music demonstrates, we live in a thoroughly cosmopolitan, interconnected time, when such designations are essentially irrelevant labels.

The opening track, Shine, offers a life-affirming message to young people, with its light, breezy groove.  The title track, Beautiful Land, showcases Rothman’s impressive stylistic and thematic versatility. Inspired by her travels in Jamaica, Rothman wrote this loving, polyrhythmic reggae-infused piece as a tribute to its people. Accented with hints of a West African groove, Beautiful Land conjures up distant times and lands, while insisting on a temporal and spatial immediacy with its hypnotic rhythms and gentle melody.

 

Of all the pieces on this EP, Inadequate packs in the most nerve and verve, with its brutally honest lyrics, reflecting on body image. Other reviewers likened Rothman’s lyrically-driven Inadequate to Ani DiFranco—and this was my initial association.  One could also compare this track to India Arie’s I’m Not My Hair, but Rothman’s upbeat and bluesy piece has much more flavor, political punch, and lyrical colour.

In Come on Home, Rothman shifts gears again, this time offering a poignantly understated elegiac ballad. A modern-day Psalm of sorts, this piece never names the subject of its mourning, but rather evokes a flood of feeling and taps the core of the experience of loss.  The following track again radically departs into an entirely different feeling and space.  Listening to Baby Do That Dance for Me, one almost expects Django Reinhardt to surface magically and rip into one of his legendary hot jazz guitar solos.  This joyful and jazzily ambient piece certainly makes you want to rise to your feet and dance along.

Remember Your Name, the other ballad on this EP, is the final track and mourns the loss of Michael Jackson, while also reflecting on his legacy and memory. Enlisting Soulfarm guitarist C Lanzbom’s help on the slide guitar, this track serves as an apt coda to an album which amply attests to the restorative power of music. Beautiful Land, which is available  in stores starting today (and will be available digitally beginning Thursday, December 8), would make a gloriously soulful Hanukkah gift for the music lovers on your list.

'Beautiful Land' cover art: Graphic design by Michelle Nichols; Artwork by Michele Kishita

The Most Important Film You Will Ever Watch

In what seems like a development only possible on the satirical pages of the Onion, Mel Gibson’s Icon Productions has just unveiled plans to co-finance a new film about Judah Maccabee, with Joe Eszterhaus of Showgirls fame onboard as screenwriter.  This is too good to be true. I mean, who better than Mel Gibson, the man who boldly asserted that Jews are responsible for all wars in the world,  to capture the quintessential epic military struggle of Jewish national religious pride versus the lures of assimilation?

I can see it now: in a creative twist on the Hanukkah story as related by the Talmud, Mel Gibson’s Hanukkah Tale: The Jews burn for eight days.

In light of this exciting news, I’d like to offer Mr. Gibson some free advice as preparations go underway for this sure-fire blockbuster:

Free Casting Advice to Mel Gibson from a Jewgirl Cinephile:

The first one is a no-brainer: we’re casting Russell Crowe as Matisyahu (if the connection isn’t obvious to you already, here’s a hint: follow the first link and check out 1Maccabees 2:46)

The role of Judah Maccabee is a tough call, but I think our winner is Vincent Gallo.

In his debut dramatic performance, Prince Harry of England will play Jonathan Maccabeus, and comedian Andy Dick will play Simon Maccabeus. John Hyrcanus will be played by Rick Sanchez.

Charlie Sheen needs a role in this cinematic masterpiece as well.  Let’s cast him as Eleazer Maccabeus.

We’re going to offer the role of Antiochus to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—an offer he surely can’t turn down.

Oh, and wardrobe will definitely be by John Galliano.

Well, time will only tell what choices Gibson will make, but if he sticks to my above plan, we’re going to have something even greater than The Passion of the Christ (2004).  Or, as Reb Yudel puts it, “If Gibson’s Hanukkah film succeeds, can his Tisha b’Av blockbuster be far behind?”

Incidentally, I vividly recall dragging a date to a Sunday matinee screening of his last Jew epic in 2004. We paid for two tickets to see Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights in the hopes that our tickets wouldn’t profit Gibson’s film, but later, a friend in the industry explained to me that films only benefit from concession stand money, not from actual ticket sales. Alas.  The film itself wasn’t particularly noteworthy, aside from its curious subtitling choices. While Gibson promised to cut out any direct implication of the Jews in Jesus’ crucifixion, the English subtitling did not always match the Aramaic dialogue onscreen. (I attended a high school which forced us to learn Aramaic. Now on facebook, I smugly resent that under the languages option, there is an “Aramaic of Jesus” and not also an ‘Aramaic of Rabban Gamliel.”)  We, along with busloads of young Christian children, some of whom were as young as four years old, proceeded to watch what amounted to two full hours of Jesus being beaten to a bloody pulp. ::Spoiler alert:: Jesus is killed.

And So This is Chanukah.

Image of the day:

walmart-chanukah

A Jewish shopper at Balducci’s main location in Greenwich Village noticed this most unlikely display last week (three years ago, but we’re a people of history) and lodged a complaint with the management, who quickly cast the blame on a stock clerk, according to the NY Daily News.

What’s next? A blow-out deal on Manischewitz wine and kashe varnishkes for Christmas?

Attention Balducci shoppers: clean up in aisle nine!

Chanukah ham story epilogue: if you would like this image and others like it immortalized on an apron, mug, calendar, or magnet, said Balducci’s customer Nancy Kay Shapiro wants to make your dreams a reality.


A Hanukkah Justice Spin

graphic1

Cross-posted from Pursue’s blog with permission.

Putting the spin on justice!

While you’re eating those potato latkes and thinking about who inspires you, take a moment to put the spin on justice! Challenge yourself to bring light into darkness and wager on your commitment to social justice.

This weekend, join Pursue at Inside the Activists’ Studio in New York and Guilt-Free Gelt in San Francisco to spin in person! The spin is below for playing at home.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Traditional dreidel rules:

DreidelsNun — Player gets nothing
Gimel — Player takes everything that’s in the pot
Hay — Player takes half of everything that’s in the pot
Shin — Player puts an additional token into the pot

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The Justice Spin rules:

The Justice Spin doesn’t require actual tokens or gelt – it’s an opportunity to spin the dreidel over conversation and see where you land. May it inspire you and your friends into action for 2011!

Nun — Do nothing – but don’t skip your turn! Sometimes, doing nothing can actually be doingsomething when it means taking time to rest and be healthy and to nurture your spirit in order to sustain yourself for all the important work you’ll do before next Hannukah. Take a break!

Gimel — Jackpot- you have it all! Do something BIG and make a difference in the world! Invest your time and your resources in your local community.  Find the justice issue you care about, and support it.

Hay — “Hey!” Say something. Be an advocate. Write a letter to the editor of your local paper about an issue that matters to you. Contact your elected officials to describe the change you desire in your city, state, and country. Speak truth to power.

Shin — Give your gelt! Tzedakah derives from the Hebrew word for justice, rather than charity. Judaism sees donating money as a powerful and necessary act, an act of justice.

Spin away and make a change. It’s your turn!

The Unbearable Lightness of Stupidity

So Howard Jacobson at the New York Times has weighed in with this year’s compulsory whining about how lame Hanukkah is. The “new” twist is complaining about dreidel—and the fact that “Hasmonean” is a funny word.

Those Hasmoneans, for example …. The Maccabees are fair enough: they sound Jewish. Scottish Jewish but still Jewish. There was a sports and social club called the Maccabi round the corner from where I was brought up in North Manchester, and as a boy I imagined the Maccabees as stocky, short-legged, hairy men like the all-conquering Maccabi table tennis team. But “Hasmoneans” rang and rings no bells.

Then, to see this lameness and raise it one more unit of vapidity (there’s gotta be a scientific measure of vapidity), Marc Tracy at Tablet rags on the dreidel game

Oh, and raise your hand if you’ve ever actually made your dreidel out of clay? I thought so.

and uses the Jacobson piece as his prooftext.
Lets hear it for Jewish though and opinion (and the newspaper of record).
(Hat tip to the Seforim Blog, which had a niece piece about dreidel with, you know, history, facts and stuff… I know–boring.)

The 8 Robots of Chanukah


Happy Chanukah from American Associates, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev! Cartoon by Jewish Robot.

Caroling Against Unemployment

Guestpost by Amanda, comedian, occasional blogger, and paper bag puppeteer.

While writing cover letters to try and end my five-month long spell of unemployment, I was also reading a book that discussed Depression-era unemployment protests, which were apparently pretty kickin’ and often involved singing. Since I enjoy writing rhyming songs, I thought it would be fun to sing songs about unemployment rates, my belief that we need more government investment to create jobs, and extending unemployment benefits.

On Sunday December 5th, I am gathering with other people who enjoy singing and hate high unemployment rates on the sidewalk in front of the White House (Pennsylvania Avenue between East and West Executive Avenues) between 3 and 4pm (and rehearsing at 2) to sing about our desire for more employment. I hope you will join us in a singing protest of unemployment rates, unemployment insurance, and the needs for increased government investment –all to the tunes of Christmas and Hannukah songs. If you are interested in joining me in trying to increase awareness of unemployment and have a hopefully very fun protest, please RSVP.

And to get you excited (or not, depending on how much you enjoy hard to parse lyrics), here are two sample songs:

To the Tune of Jingle Bells, with the profound lyrics taken from FDR:

Jobs for all, Jobs for all!
Unemployment has to go!
Give us a jobless recovery, we’ll put you in the snow.

No country however rich
Can afford the waste
Of its human resources!
Demoralization
Caused by vast unemployment
Is our greatest extravagance.
Morally it is
The greatest Menace to our Social Order

Jobs for all, Jobs for all!
Unemployment has to go!
Give us a jobless recovery, we’ll put you in the snow!

To the tune of I Have a Little Dreidel:

We had an economy with more jobs
Some provided good fair pay
Oh jobs, jobs jobs
Why did 8.2 million of you go away?
Oh jobs jobs jobs
We miss you here this day
Oh jobs jobs jobs
Come back to us today

Joining Traditions

This article was originally published on InterfaithFamily.com. Interfaith Family is “the online resource for interfaith families exploring Jewish life and the grass-roots advocate for a welcoming Jewish community.” I don’t think I’ve written about my family on Jewschool before, but I thought I’d give it a try by cross-posting.

My brother and I were raised by two Jewish parents. Ours was a liberal Jewish home: mezuzahs on the doorways, Shabbat dinner every Friday, holidays observed and celebrated. I grew up believing that my parents were both equally committed to our family’s level of observance. In recent years, long after my parents’ divorce, and as my father has formed a new family, I’ve learned that my outlook was perhaps naive.

My father believed that raising the kids with Judaism was the right thing to do. He went along with it. But while our family observed Passover, eschewed bread and other leavened products for the eight days, he would go to the deli by his office for lunch and privately enjoy a sandwich. Once I was old enough to go to synagogue on my own, he no longer went to Shabbat services. And when I wanted to start laying tefillin, he was more than happy to give me his set, which had been stashed in the back of his closet since before I was born.

As an observant Jew, I was taken aback by his deception. In hindsight, I understand, and appreciate, the decisions he made for our family. I was left wondering what type of religious life he would have, especially as he ages and talks about his will and funeral plans. But while I was wondering what his funeral might look like, balancing my future mourning needs with his probable want for a not overtly religious burial, another life-cycle event brought his religious views to the forefront.

My father started dating, moved in with, and became engaged to the woman who is now my stepmother. This raised a whole other round of questions for me. As far as I knew, he had only ever dated Jewish women. My stepmother is not Jewish. I didn’t have much opportunity to spend time with her before they were married; we lived on opposite coasts. My questions went mostly unanswered, and mostly unasked.
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Chanukah/Shabbos Zmiros – Dreidel Bird from The Macaroons

This Chanukah has been quite a doozy, in terms of candles. We got two Shabbatot this Chanukah, making tonight a whopping eleven-candle evening.

As you watch your eleven candles burn low, check out the new video from The Macaroons, for their song Dreidel Bird. Billed as “JDub’s first kids band,” The Macaroons are notable in my book for making Jewish kids music that doesn’t sound obnoxious and doesn’t talk down to kids. I’ve only heard a couple of songs by them so far, but so far it seems like original, clever music. And for a video composed entirely of shots of dreidels spinning, this is a pretty cool video too!

Hanukah Lessons for Today

This is a guest post by Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater of the Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center.

In her book Animal Dreams, author Barbara Kingslover says, “memory is a complicated thing, a relative to truth, but not its twin.” I am thinking about that line as we celebrate Hanukkah this week and remember all of the different aspects of the past that we recall in relationship to this post-Biblical, traditionally insignificant holiday that has become a hallmark today of Jewish celebration. What we celebrate most during the Hanukkah, the miracle of the oil last eight nights when it was supposed to only last one, is actually the least historical–”not just the miracle story but even the special connection between the lights and the holiday. That connection came later, nobody knows exactly wherefrom.” (Jewish Days, Francine Klagsburn, p. 64) Interestingly, the part of the story that has the most significant historical backing, namely the Maccabees fight against their Syrian Hellenistic enemies, is not included in the canon of the Torah and presents us with some issues to reconcile. Yet, it is precisely the situation with Judah and his family that I think offers us some real lessons for how we, as American Jews, are handling life in this safe, assimilated and prosperous land we find ourselves today.

The time of the Maccabees was one of great empires, Greek leading into Roman. Oppression, but also great progress and advancement, filled the land. Many of the people that Mattithias, Judah’s father, needed to fight were other Jews who had become enthralled and immersed in Syrian-Hellenistic culture. For, as we know, many of the Jews of that time had abandoned Judaism in favor of the secular ways of their society. The gymnasium for exercise, the philosophy, the bathhouses, the culture, the dress, the mannerism — Hellenism was the hottest thing going! Judah’s family, who were actually Hasmoneans, came to be known as Maccabees, which means ‘hammer,’ as they fought not only the cruel, oppressive Antiocus IV, but also there very brothers and sisters who they felt had gone astray of God’s commandments and abandoned Torah. While it is important and spiritually fulfilling to focus on the miracle of the oil on Hanukkah, and even more historical to focus on the struggle against religious oppression that the Maccabees waged, I think it is equally, if not a bit more interesting, to approach the story from the perspective of what was happening within the organized Jewish community at the time. For, as the history tells us, this was as much a civil war as it was a war against the empire. And while the zealotry of the Maccabees did win in the immediate, their victory was short-lived, for it ushered in a century of major infighting and priestly assassinations that led to the Roman destruction of the 2nd Temple. What can we learn from this aspect of the story for today? More »

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