I love Hanukkah; parts of it. The candles, the songs, the games, the gelt, the latkes. But something about this festival makes me queasy. I know why and I have to fess up; I am something of a Hellenist. Yes, the Hellenists we railed against in Hebrew School, decried in Young Judaea and curse every Hanukkah. A misunderstood breed. Not some Herodian tycoon or Antiochan tyrant, just your run of the mill moderate Jewish Hellenist getting a bad rap. I like to go to the gym; particularly to Pilates. I’m rather tickled if an image of Aquarius slips into my mosaics. I admire science and logic, and I prefer the rule of people-made law to the rule of halacha. I find the priestly class in Israel, Matityahu’s progeny, nothing short of abhorrent – preaching a moldy morality and hawking the wares of a false messiah.
Hanukkah’s plot unfolds in landscapes I know and love. The action begins in the terraced hills of Modi’in, teeming with Greek soldiers and hard-working Jews. The first shot is from Matityahu’s sword as he slays a fellow Jew. Soon after, we meet poor Channa who watches the murder of her seven sons. Ambiguity gives way to dichotomy, and a narrative that glorifies martyrdom is the standard borne. Everyone pulls Hanukkah in their own direction (even their own spellings). The early Zionists latched onto the heroics of tough Jews who bravely fought for freedom from an evil oppressor, a rousing and valid narrative that served a purpose for quite some time. The more religious found God’s hand in the miracle of the oil and honor his glory through commemorating the purification of the Temple. Others embrace the dichotomy and call for strict adherence to rabbinical edicts, even above life itself.
I propose dwelling less on the narratives of religious intolerance, purification, victimization and martyrdom. With the Land of Israel still at the center of this story, with a strong army and a vibrant cultural life, we can celebrate Hanukkah as what it obviously is – a harvest holiday. Our stores of olive oil dwindle in September and October; the farmers rush to finish their harvest before winter’s heavy rains. They line up at the local Oil Presses, which work 24/7 in season to squeeze the oil out of their fruit. We locals have the pleasure of buying the first batch; and can enjoy the unrefined tanginess of freshly pressed olive oil. Olive season has peaked and now we can rejoice in the confidence of full warehouses until next Hanukkah. It is the miracle of the oil, with a twist.
Judd the Hammer had his day in the sun. Now, when the light is sparse, we can appreciate the menorah’s glow, eat the latkes, sing some songs and spin some dreidels. And then I will screw on some garden lights and shine them on my olive trees. I may even trim off a small branch and wave it to my neighbors – this is something we can celebrate together. Pagan? Hellenist? Perhaps. I cast my lot for a Jewish future; for a clear vision, for the environment, for peace.
Tradition? It has to start somewhere.