Tonight is the first night of Hanukkah. My family lit just a few candles to begin the slow creep towards the inferno of the 8th night when we will have enough to burn the house down. We take the commandment of publicize the miracle of the oil which lasted eight days pretty seriously.
But more than the commemoration of the story of the hidden cruse of oil described in the Talmud, in Israel at least, the Maccabean revolt and civil war play a major role in our holiday. For those who have read the story as it appears in the book of the Maccabees, the role of the internal and external war dominates.
Just as “All the Gentiles accepted the command of the king,” so too “Many even from Israel gladly adopted his religion; they sacrificed to idols and profaned the Sabbath.” (Macc. I, 1:43) The candles remind us not only of the one little jar of oil lasting eight days but also of the power of the Jewish victory over religious oppression and ultimately assimilation.
I have great respect for fellow religious travelers each finding meaning in his or her own tradition. As I have written elsewhere, I truly believe that God speaks to others through the best of their particular religions. Yet, this week, the particular takes the fore. We place candles outside or in our windows declaring that this is a proud, Jewish home; a home which maintains contact with 3000 years of tradition. But it is not always easy to maintain that home especially in a world which sings a different song.
I had the privilege of attending a wonderful preparatory high school. Every year, the high school chorale club performed a holiday concert. The songs focused on Christmas themes and although they always contained a token and fairly unheard of “Chanukah” song, the feeling I had was similar to attending a Church concert. The crisscrossing of music, liturgy, and theology was simply too much for me. I felt as if the school was forcing me to attend a church service.
My senior year, I finally reached the level of maturity or chutzpah to demure. When I explained to the assistant headmaster the problem, he challenged my assertion. How did I even know what songs would be sung and how does innocuous music affect me. To his credit, he accepted my position that songs declaring the birth of a savior would be counter to my upbringing and together we inquired as to the content of the songs. When it became clear that, indeed, such songs would be, not surprisingly, the centerpiece of the show, he acquiesced to my request and confined me to the academic offices for a study period. Perhaps a small victory for a petulant adolescent, but in a way it was my own personal heeding of the call of the Maccabees.
That was the soft, easy rebellion. The harder one also came at that same school. In eighth grade, I attended a course where students sampled various languages and cultures with the goal of deciding upon a foreign language to pursue throughout high school. During the “Latin” section, the teacher arranged a type of Roman toga costume day. We boys had to change in the bathroom from our button down shirts, ties, and dress pants, into traditional roman attire. Several of the boys disliked me for whatever reason and Judaism seemed to be a good enough excuse. These were good, white, Christian, preppy types. While changing clothes four or five of these boys decided that they had had enough of the Jew. The jumped me, spit on me, held me down, punched me in the stomach (it never shows in the stomach) and drew Swastikas over several parts of my body all the while reminding me who I really was. They left me there on the floor trying to find the power within to regroup. I pulled myself up and holding back the tears, used the toga to cover my new markings, and came to class really not even knowing how to react. I never shared this story with my parents or the school and it wasn’t until I was an adult that I could speak of it. This was, certainly, not the only anti-Semitic incident I lived through in high school, but it was by far the worse. I don’t blame the school or even most of the good and decent students who attended. But the burden of alienation I absorbed and my desire to overcome, I guess, became another personal act of lighting Hanukkah candles. If anything I became more the Jew they wished to push down.
To be sure, I respect my Christian friends and peers, but in the end I know and always knew that I could never really be one of them. Both out of personal choice and external forces, I cannot sing their songs and I cannot kneel at their altars.
Having grown up in a small, Jewish community at the very edge of the South with all the experiences I’ve described, and having seen Christianity as the great “other”, I was shocked, in college, to meet Jews who chose to sing the very songs I fought to escape. Enamored with Macy’s windows, Bing Crosby and Irving Berlin, and It’s a Wonderful Life, my friends from larger Jewish communities shared none of the taboos I did. In my family, we did not eat Chinese food on the Christian holiday, but neither did we show any desire to join the greater cultural experience (we did go to movies). It wasn’t easy. My parents could not avoid the random Santa photo shoot come upon by chance in the mall or completely isolate us, but the idea of singing Christmas carols was beyond anything I could imagine. And to this day, when I hear of my friends or even former students who choose to join in the fun of one or another aspect of Christmas, I am shocked to my very core. Our job in this world, it seems to me, is to continue to burn the flame of the Maccabees not to hide our circumcision, even as a joke, as did the Hellenized Jews.
It wasn’t easy standing up to the culture around us. Fully aware of the pull of both Christianity and Islam in his day, Rabbi Judah HaLevy in the Kuzari, interestingly enough originally named The Book of Refutation and Proof in Defense of the Despised Faith, writes that Jews receive reward just for fighting against the stream and not joining the non-Jewish world. (Book I, par. 115) The Maccabees could have joined the move towards Hellenization and the Greek way of life. But they refused. And their refusal became a symbol and marker of Jewish holy particularism for the ages.
Over the centuries, the world has tried, both literally and figuratively, to make us hide our Hanukkah lights and over the millennia we have continued to make them burn brightly. In ghettos and concentration camps, on the Lower East Side and in Queens and Long Island, as well as Des Moines and Jacksonville, we have kept the candles burning. Of course, if one’s life is threatened, the Halacha specifically allows one to light in private in the home as many Jews did (Rema to ShuA 671:7). But that is not the ideal. Here in Israel, in our land and our country, we light outside or in the most public places possible to follow both the letter of the law as well as its innermost spirit.
Now that I live in Israel, my children can’t comprehend what it is like to see the Macy’s windows and hear the carolers coming. We light our myriad of Hanukkah menorahs, spin silly tops, and eat chocolate gelt. Unless they look for the lights on the road to Bethlehem, they won’t even know when Christmas comes. Tonight on the radio I even had the pleasure of hearing our president, Reuven Rivlin, say the blessings over the lighting in a language he understands. We have our own challenges, perhaps, of not enough universalism. But this week, this week we relish in the particularistic battles that happened over 2000 years ago — battles that led to a newfound Jewish freedom. Tonight and for 8 nights we light our candles, remember those priests who took up arms to create a Jewish state, and we look out the window and celebrate life in the modern State of Israel.