It is possible that I’m the only Jewish educator who gets a little nervous as the month of Kiselv rolls around each year, but I highly doubt it. It’s not just the task of ordering enough gelt or acquiring sufganiyot or identifying craft projects that will engage my students while not creating so much of a mess as to to decimate the social hall. It’s not even participating in the age-old debate of whether potatoes for latkes should be grated or pulverized. Rather, it’s my uneasy awareness that Hanukkah has a story problem.
We have the story of Judah Maccabee, of course, one of the few conquering heroes of ancient Jewish military history, who fought bravely for the right of Jews under Selucid rule to freely practice their religion. The thing is, however, that Judah was a religious fundamentalist with a very narrow view of what practicing Judaism should look like and that the majority of the casualties in the maccabean war were assimilated Jews. Our ancient rabbis were uncomfortable enough with the Hanukkah story they inherited that they came up with another story altogether. In the story of the miracle of a single vessel of oil burning for eight nights, the sages went for a tactic that most camp counselors, educators, and parents are familiar with: when there’s a pretty fire burning, whether in a campfire pit or a menorah, people are less likely to look anywhere else. All this for what is really a very minor festival in the Jewish calendar, which has become a nerve center for debate about assimilation, consumerism, and the “right” way to be Jewish in our modern age. Do you see what I’m saying? It’s a bit of a mess.
Out of the historical and mythical layers of the Hanukkah narrative, we mostly end up with two kinds of tales: miracle stories, where hope and persistence and resourcefulness win out over scarcity, oppression, and greed, and Maccabee stories, where armed guerilla fighters exercise their military might over the Selucid armies, regain control of the Temple, and rededicate it in the service of Jewish monotheism. Neither genre is inherently bad. I’m a big fan of the former and can see the importance of the latter, but I do think we’re missing out on something when these are the only two Hanukkah stories we know how to tell.
One of the benefits of running a supplementary religious school is that I am surrounded by amazing Jewish educators—a fact I became sharply aware of as I walked into Kehilla’s fourth grade classroom last Thursday. The class was in the middle of a lesson about Hanukkah, with Ariel Vegosen, one of our all-star fourth grade teachers, at the front of the room.
What, Ariel was asking, are the ways that people can respond when someone is oppressing them? Over the next few minutes, Ariel guided the students in generating a list. The options fell into the following four categories: resist, flee, assimilate, and hide. Ariel explained that the Hanukkah story we usually hear is one about violent resistance, but that we can be sure that other Jews living in the Selucid empire during that same time chose other options, other ways of responding.
As I listened to Ariel teach, my Hanukkah anxiety came into focus. The problem isn’t that the story we usually hear and tell is inaccurate (though that certainly can happen); it’s that the story’s frame is too narrow. Yes, when faced with oppression, some people choose to resist. However, violent resistance, such as the Maccabees’ war, is only one kind of resistance, and resistance is only one possible response to oppressive regimes.
We owe it to ourselves and to our young people to tell a story with a broader lens. We need to tell stories that include nonviolent resistance, and that humanize the choice to flee, hide, or assimilate, in addition to military force. When we only talk about the Maccabees, we risk valorizing violent resistance at the exclusion of other options. We risk holding up a kind of resistance that replicates some aspects of the oppression it opposes—namely, the idea that there is one right way to be a Jew, just as Antiochus Epiphanes seems to have believed that there was one right way to be a denizen of his empire. When we only talk about the miracle of the oil, we lose out on the chance to explore themes of oppression and to consider what our tradition teaches us about how respond.
This year, let’s tell ourselves and our young people complicated stories about Hanukkah. Let’s ask questions we don’t already know how to answer and be honest about when we’re confused. Let’s admit how ritually beautiful it is to light candles in the middle of the darkest month of the year, as traditions around the world have been doing since the beginning of recorded history and likely before. Let’s look at the myriad oppressions facing people under today’s oppressive governmental regimes, nationally and globally. Let’s craft responses to oppression that don’t replicate intolerance, but instead celebrate difference and build connection. Let’s talk about the importance of resistance is while also recognizing how ambivalent we feel about the violent resistance of the Maccabees. Let’s tell these stories to each other in the sacred dark of the winter nights. I believe that this new collection of stories will be its own kind of miracle.