It feels somewhat strange when we celebrate Hanukkah a few days after gathering for Thanksgiving. Our Jewish holidays are tied to the Hebrew calendar which operates independently from the Gregorian calendar. Occasionally however, Hanukkah finds its way into November and nears Thanksgiving.
This offers us a unique opportunity to reflect upon our dual commitments as American Jews. Interestingly both Thanksgiving and Hanukkah are built upon myths that are thinly tied to history. Let me explain.
Nowhere in the Book of Maccabees, the first written record of the events surrounding Hanukkah, is the miracle of oil mentioned. I realize this may come as a surprise given that this story forms the core of how we talk about Hanukkah. We first find the miracle story in the Talmud, a book completed nearly 700 years after the Maccabean revolt.
Did the miracle of oil really occur? Was it passed down by word of mouth and not written down for hundreds of years? I would like to believe so. Or did the rabbis invent this story so that they might alter Hanukkah’s original message?
We are inheritors of a Judaism shaped by these rabbis. Our commitments are by and large choreographed by them. They wanted to forget the horrible events surrounding the Maccabees’ victory. In fact, the war the Maccabees waged was more against their fellow Jews than the Syrian-Greeks. The first man they killed was not a Seleucid soldier but instead a fellow Jew. His sacrifice to the Greek gods incensed them and so they killed him.
It was a civil war. Later, the Maccabees’ descendants oppressed their fellow Jews. They were zealots in every sense of the word.
We wish to forget this. We wish to relegate these painful episodes to the footnotes of history. And so, we highlight the story about God’s miracle. We wish to emphasize this notion that we were unified against outside oppressors. We were one people! Always. And forever. The facts suggest otherwise. The way we tell the Hanukkah story says more about how we want to see ourselves rather than how it all went down 2200 years ago.
Then again, are we still one people? Does our myth telling conceal what we should be talking about? Does it suppress the painful truths about which we should be arguing?
How are we going to be one people? How are we going to prevent another civil war?
The same can be said about Thanksgiving. What we believe and the stories we tell suggest more about us rather than the actual history.
The first Thanksgiving was not in fact how we tell it. Our nation’s origins are not as perfect as we like to believe. It did not go down the way we were told in elementary school. The brutality of early settlers towards Native Americans is now well known. The inhumanity of many of our founders towards enslaved Black people is sometimes too painful to recount.
Becoming one people takes real effort and work. As much as we like to think otherwise, it is not born out of the legends we like to tell, but instead from painful self-examination and difficult discussions.
How we recount our history can make all the difference in the world. Do we continue telling the myths that push history’s pains to the edges or do we bring these wounds front and center and write a new story, creating a unified, shared future?
There can be no oneness without honesty and truth.
Happy Thanksgiving. Happy Hanukkah.
May both these holidays offer us renewed opportunities to celebrate the blessings of family and friends. And may we find in these days a renewed commitment to become even more faithful American Jews.