It’s All Greek to Me

It never fails, every single year I come across the most annoying articles written by Jewish people who have a very poor understanding of Hanukkah, followed by the inevitable barrage of comments made by readers who display similar sentiments. Recently, I felt a tinge of frustration when learning the background story behind the making of a book titled Dear Santa, Love, Rachel Rothstien, written by Amanda Peet and Andrea Troyer. I have not read the book yet, so I cannot comment on it and for all I know it’s absolutely fantastic. However, something that the authors said had managed to capture my attention: they stated that originally, they were looking to write about how awesome Hanukkah is, but this proved to be very difficult to do.

This post is not about criticizing someone’s creative efforts, I don’t believe in that type of thing anyhow; it’s more a case of incredulity and astonishment towards those who downgrade or minimize Hanukkah, because how could explaining Hanukkah not be anything but awesome?

Come on, with this holiday we have the makings of a wonderful Hollywood script, and one doesn’t have to be Jewish in order to be caught up in all the drama. Almost in the same way that one does not have to be a Christian in order to enjoy a good old-fashioned Christmas movie or eggnog, perhaps? The story of Hanukkah takes place between the years 167-160 BCE, when the clothing alone could potentially turn into Oscar-winning opportunities for wardrobe designers; there’s an evil ruler with an equally evil-sounding name, Antiochus Epiphanes lV; the Jews as the subjugated people under the Seleucid Empire who fought tooth and nail in order to keep their religious independence alive, while these Syrian-Greeks were busy Hellenizing the region i.e., forcing their Greek beliefs on everyone and successfully sweeping into their midst plenty of Jews as well. Simply put, this was a fight between the values of Hellenism and the values of Judaism. The lesson to be had is that we should always be respectful of other religions.

You have a pious Jewish priest in Mattathias who also had five brave sons, one of which was Judas Maccabaeus, otherwise known as Judah Maccabee who became the famous one of all—even garnering the nickname “The Hammer.”

Joe Manganiello should be cast as Judah Maccabee (image courtesy of Joe Manganiello Web)
Joe Manganiello should be cast as Judah Maccabee (image courtesy of Joe Manganiello Web)

Judah is someone that children can admire and look up to, and if I were a casting director I would be getting in touch with Joe Manganiello’s agent right away. Yep, without a doubt, he’s definitely Judah material for this type of movie. Judah stood at the helm of the Maccabaean/Hasmonaean Dynasty after his father’s death, and helped lead the Jewish people to victory against the Greeks. We have a plethora of Greek gods to play around with, wretched anti-Jewish edicts to describe, and the excitement of rededicating the Temple in Jerusalem after it had been desecrated by the Greeks. And what’s a holiday without some miracle work? This part overshadows the rest of the story, and what most people choose to remember and embrace usually. I admit that even I’m a sucker for that part, albeit some may see it as a bit of a stretch. After all, it was never mentioned in book 1 or 2 of the Maccabees, only later it appears in the Talmud. However, I view the miracle as an extra literary tool that helps bring the story to a wonderful conclusion filled with symbolism and meaning. It makes no difference whether you believe in the miracle, or a fluke, or an exaggeration.

One reason that later rabbinical writings placed emphasis on the miracle of the oil as opposed to the victory of the Maccabees was the need to appease the Romans who were not happy learning of the Jews’ celebrating a great military victory etc. When it comes to prayers for Hanukkah al ha-nissim is recited during Amidah and the Grace after Meals, and it actually focuses on the military victory. As you can see there has always been a struggle between the spiritual meaning and the military significance, and that’s precisely the beauty of our religion–there is so much to decipher and discuss.

I can already picture the scene when Judah (played by Joe) enters the Temple, the camera pans on his face; there is no need for words as he scans the desecrated premises. But then his eyes light up once the menorah is found. When it is lit with the one and only cruse of oil, that light continues to burn for eight days instead of one. We all love a happy ending, even if this one only lasted for 100 years before the Romans took control all over again. I can see how this story could be interpreted in so many beautiful ways, whether in cartoon form, or a live action flick, or painted with that very special Disney magic and glitter.

So why has this not been turned into one of those holiday movies in America that children can’t wait to watch over and over again—generation after generation, in the same way that Rudolph, or Santa, or Elf movies have captured people’s attention?

I think it’s because too many people automatically assume that Hanukkah is the less-important holiday, the one that mimics Christmas. I don’t think that the history behind the holiday of Hanukkah actually sinks in with most people. Perhaps they associate it with too much violence, while Christmas represents the birth of Christ, a happy occasion. Who doesn’t like babies and birthdays? When it comes to Hanukkah, I have realized that so many Americans are unaware of what a big deal it is in Israel. They mention the events with a certain disconnect between the miracle of the oil, Judah Maccabee, the Greeks, and eight days of presents. And to date, the only Hanukkah material that I’ve noticed from Hollywood has been Adam Sandler’s Eight Crazy Nights or the very entertaining Hanukkah song. That’s it in a nutshell. I am left scratching my head every time I read an article from yet another blogger or journalist and their terrible dilemma during this time of year when they pity their children, because they don’t get to celebrate Christmas.

Even my husband’s Jewish friends and family in London all celebrate Christmas, while Hanukkah is mentioned in passing only, and out of guilt probably. You see, Hanukkah so many times is likened to that second best holiday; heck, I even heard it as a joke on the sitcom Black-ish, when Andres Johnson (played by Anthony Anderson) compared Father’s Day to Hanukkah. And just as Father’s Day plays second fiddle to Mother’s Day, the same goes for Hanukkah, because it’s just not as good as Christmas. No need to worry, I have not taken anything out of context and I was able to laugh at that quip, but it did make me think about the rest of the Jews who share the same views.

During my childhood years in Israel, I remember Hanukkah as one of the most exciting times of the year. The weeks leading up to the holiday were dedicated to preparing classroom crafts and decorations made from colored construction paper and glitter adhesives that we’d cut out in the shapes of svivonim, cruses of oil, chanukiot etc. We would read wonderful stories of bravery and endurance and participate in holiday sketches, and ceremonies at school while dressed in white—the official holiday dress code for all celebrations. We’d enjoy sufganiot, latkes, and levivot that were only available once a year. Though the sufganiot used to be filled with strawberry jelly and these days one can find an unbelievable assortment of gourmet donuts instead. We could not wait for our holiday break from school, and we continued celebrating with family and friends over delicious meals festooned with greasy foods, all in our effort to remember the miracle of that one lonely cruse of oil. We would go on hikes around Modi-in, and there would be special concerts and public chanukiah lighting ceremonies followed by one of Israel’s favorite pastimes: public singing. It was so much fun, and presents had nothing to do with our exuberance or excitement, because when I was growing up all those years ago this was not part of the celebration. These days, things may have changed a little, and such is the nature of modern life; one tends to adopt new habits or traditions, so I am not too bothered by the gifts at all. But in Israel it’s not the emphasis, and the giving of gelt is still customary. If you think about it, we were always somehow influenced by our surroundings, so why should things differ now? Heck, even Judah was actually named Judas Maccabaeaus, which denotes the Greek impact on the Jews of the times.

Although Hanukkah is a post-biblical era holiday, it is very much documented and one can read about it in the First and Second Books of the Maccabees as well as in the works of the historian Flavious Josephus. Later on there is reference to it in the Gemara and in Megilat Antiochus. It’s interesting to note that the Maccabees’ military victory only lasted for a century after which there was a lot of shifting of power and flip-flopping of allegiances. But the story of Hanukkah has nothing to do with that later era, and everything to do with our brave Judah and the Evil Antiochus Ephiphanes lV with emphasis on a victory won by the underdogs against the mighty Greek army, and after a long struggle, the sensational outcome of re-dedication of the temple, and the miracle of the oil of course.

Queen Alexis flirting with Judah ( a scene from It's All Greek to Me)
Queen Alexis flirting with Judah Maccabee (a scene from It’s All Greek to Me)

When I used to teach at a Jewish day school, I made sure to make a very big deal out of Hanukkah. So apart from our latkes-making competitions or a concert dedicated to the holiday, my students’ raison d’être for celebrating Hanukkah was our holiday play. It’s All Greek to Me was the title of a memorable play that I wrote for my students and it was a wonderful way in which to excite them about their heritage, and bring to life heroes that would otherwise remain unnoticed for the most part. I even took some artistic liberty and created a few more heroes, such as Judith the Maccabaean who had her own band of female warriors ready to fight the evil Greeks. Judah Maccabee was smitten by her of course–a little detail that my students enjoyed. And to add more humor to the story I also involved Queen Alexis, my version of Antiochus’s wife, thus creating a love triangle between Judah, Judith, and the Queen. We had wonderfully choreographed sword fights, catchy singing tunes by the beautiful Greek gods and a time machine that enabled us to revel in all of this magnificent history. I can promise you that my students have never forgotten these performances, and my hope is that they have continued a Hanukkah tradition filled with fun and creativity.

Judith the Maccabaean and her warriors
Judith the Maccabaean and her warriors (scene from It’s All Greek to Me)

When my son is asked to write to Santa as a school assignment, even though most teachers already know he’s Jewish as his absence on Yom Kippur is a big give away—Jack actually writes a letter to Judah Maccabee instead. He thanks Judah for being such a great hero and mentions all the things he loves about the holiday. My 21-year-old daughter always returns home for at least one evening during Hanukkah, because she knows that I will only prepare my famous latkes once a year. When we lived in Venice, California, I would prepare latkes for the entire neighborhood; once I counted about 100 pieces. It was one way in which I chose to spread our holiday joy. Over time, we’ve created our own traditions and family customs, but the main idea of celebrating our religious independence has never changed. I don’t think that I’ve ever heard my children wish they could celebrate a different holiday to ours. In fact, my little one is so happy that Jewish holidays, for the most part, last for days on end!

My delicious, crispy latkes
My delicious, crispy latkes

So this year when you light the chanukiah with your children, think of how every candle that you light is one way that you can shed even more light on the Jews’ history, and how important it is to keep that light shining so that the story of our independence never dies.

Hmmm, perhaps Liev Schreiber as Judah maccabee?

Liev Schriber would make a badass Judah Maccabee (image courtesy of Daily Mail)
Liev Schriber would make a badass Judah Maccabee (image courtesy of Daily Mail)


About the Author
Ilana was born in London, England, and currently resides in Camarillo, California. She graduated from Manchester University with an LL.B in 1991. Her writings include the play “A Recipe for Hummus,” and her novels, "The Diary of a Wrinkle" and "East End Dreams." "Age Schmage" is a little book intended to help women in their moments of doubt; "A Cookbook for the Woman Who Hates Cooking" is an honest, yet funny approach to cooking; "What if I Had a Different Name?" is a collaboration with her son Jack and it’s a fun exploration of some of the weird and fantastical names that Jack imagines as his own. "The Cloud That Covered My Head" is a whimsical story about a boy who preferred to stay in bed and dream rather than go to school. "Diary of a Wrinkle" is her blog where she muses on the topic of aging and beauty, and @wrinklerevolution is her corresponding Instagram account. You can follow her on Instagram at @soletseat for her daily culinary creations. Her latest children's book "Rotten Tooth Ruth" will be available for purchase on Amazon first week of December 2018.
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