We just received a note from a dear friend and longtime reader. She wrote: I know you once told me Hanukkah is a minor holiday in Israel but, so, just in case you feel like lighting a menorah, enjoy! Wishing you as much joy as is possible at this moment in time. Stay well and safe.
For sure we’re lighting candles and celebrating the holiday. I’ll clarify my previous comment: Minor doesn’t mean Hanukkah isn’t celebrated here. It’s minor only in the sense that the story of the Maccabees isn’t mentioned in the Bible. Here it isn’t among the most holy holidays. Presents are exchanged mostly around Rosh Hashanah or Passover, not so much during this holiday. Fried foods, such as doughnuts and potato pancakes (latkes) are a big thing. Hanukkah “gelt” (money) is often the gift of choice, along with chocolate “coins” and plain or fancy dreidels for games.
Hanukkah is certainly less significant here than in America, where many Jews equate it somehow with Christmas, whose commercial influence is ubiquitous. Here Christmas is not prominent, observed only by the small Israeli Christian community – some Arab, some from the former Soviet Union, and even some from the US.
There are important religious and nationalistic aspects to Hanukkah. When Alexander the Great of Macedonia swept through Judea in the 4th century BCE, he was welcomed by the Jews, a wise course of action. There is a legend that all of the male children of that time were given the name Alexander. Also, that Jerusalem’s gates were thrown open for Alexander, sparing Judea from destruction. It was even said that Alexander had offered a sacrifice in the Temple.
After Alexander died in 323 BCE, his empire fell into turmoil for the next 20 years. Eventually, it was divided among several of his closest generals. Judea fell right between the Seleucids to the north in Syria and Asia Minor, and the Ptolemies to the south in Egypt. During most of the 2nd century Judea became subject to rule by the Seleucid general, called Antiochus III.
Alexander’s successors imitated what Alexander had done, founding Greek cities which they often named after themselves. “Each of these cities was a polis with Greek-style institutions, such as theaters for the performance of Greek plays, temples dedicated to Greek gods, council houses for Greek-style meetings, and gymnasia so that the youth could be educated in the Greek manner. The populations who lived in these cities grew loyal to the king because they benefited from the sophisticated Greek cultural and political institutions. The spreading of Greek culture in this way is called Hellenization, and it was an effective tool used throughout the realms ruled by Alexander’s successors.”
Antiochus IV, who inherited the Seleucid throne in 176 BCE, resumed his father’s program of Hellenization, which had been halted because of fierce opposition from Judeans who refused to abandon their monotheism for the Greeks’ paganism. Antiochus redoubled efforts and outlawed central tenets of Judaism, such as the Sabbath and circumcision. Even worse, Antiochus defiled the Temple by erecting an altar to the god Zeus while proclaiming himself a god to be worshipped. He also blasphemously sanctioned the sacrifice of pigs on the Temple altar while opening the Temple to non-Jews.
“Though many Jews had been seduced by the virtues of Hellenism, the extreme measures adopted by Antiochus helped unite the people. When a Greek official tried to force a priest named Mattathias to make a sacrifice to a pagan god, Mattathias murdered the man. Predictably, Antiochus began reprisals, but in 167 BCE the Jews rose up behind Mattathias and his five sons and fought for their liberation. The family of Mattathias became known as the Maccabees, from the Hebrew word for ‘hammer,’ because they were said to strike hammer blows against their enemies. Jews refer to the ‘Maccabees,’ but the family is more commonly known as the Hasmoneans…. By the year 142 BCE, the Jews were again masters of their own fate.”
In Israel, Hanukkah celebrates “light,” signifying the purity and splendor of the re-sanctified Temple, as evidenced by a 1-day supply of consecrated oil lasting for eight days; by the defeat of Hellenism, with its desecration of the Temple and military occupation; and arguably by the victory of the Jewish zealots over the assimilated upper strata (including Temple priests), tantamount to a civil war.
To put the Jews’ civil war into context, recall the American Revolution, where a large percentage of the upper classes remained loyal to the English king, downplayed the need for independence, and subsequently were killed or fled to Canada and England when the defeat of the British was certain.
So, Michal and I joyfully light the menorah (aka Hannukiah), sometimes by ourselves, sometimes with friends, and sometimes by Zoom with our children. It’s a wonderful winter holiday, albeit not one of the most holy.