Thinking Like Judah Maccabee on Hanukkah

This Sunday, on the first night of Hanukkah, I will be making the latkes, as I usually do, for my family at our apartment in upper Manhattan. We will light the shamash and then the initial candle, watch it shiver as we sing traditional songs in Hebrew—including “Maoz Tsur,” my favorite, the gorgeous, lyrical prayer to our “Rock of Ages” that has enchanted me since childhood. We will play dreidel, munch on some chocolate gelt and exchange presents … none more than $20, according to house rules. And I will do something I don’t normally do but should’ve done years ago when I became an adult, when I started looking at the holiday as more than just a celebration.

I will talk about the story behind Hanukkah, the story of Judah Maccabee, in the context of anti-Semitism.

We’re living in an era now when anyone can type something on the Internet, can make any opinion, good or bad, positive or negative, known. So we mustn’t forget that at one time, such communication wasn’t always possible. Religious freedom for some was restricted. People were constrained. As Jews, we know the impact of persecution and the inability to do what we want to do, to say what we want to say, for fear of punishment. We’ve had it happen to us too much.

Which is why I suggest that this holiday season, we look to the hero of the Hanukkah tale, Judah Maccabee, for more than just inspiration. He is a complex historical figure, willing to fight for his culture and religion, not necessarily a peaceful man but a forceful one, a political revolutionary and a powerful leader. We don’t celebrate the violence with which he engaged the armies of the government that oppressed his people, yet we ultimately value his victory and understand his need to survive as a Jew, as a human being with his own identity. And although I may look at his story with 21st-century eyes, I know that what he faced is similar to what we, as Jews, face today: a struggle against hatred and misconceptions, against demonization and contempt and vilification and willful ignorance. He pushed back, and we should do the same—not physically, but spiritually, psychologically, by rejecting the hurtful comments lobbed by those who despise our faith, by responding with patience and education, with positive rather than negative reinforcement, a nod of the head instead of a shake. We will never be insusceptible to the pain of verbal attacks. We can, however, mitigate such challenges through the dissemination of mutual respect. And such respect is necessary if we want to effect a better society.

Judah Maccabee didn’t have the luxury of advocating for that climate, but we do—we, today, do. Like him, we’re presented with a distressingly anti-Semitic environment, one in which many Jews do not feel safe, even in countries where they’ve lived for hundreds of years. Yet now we have a voice, and our voice broadcasts a pride in our heritage, along with a clarion call: We will not be forced to give up our culture ever again. Silence is not an option. We can’t afford to remain quiet.

As such, I am determined this holiday season to talk about Judah Maccabee in a modern light—the light of contemporary anti-Semitism—while remaining steadfast in my attempts to make the perfect latke. We’ll all serve ourselves when they’re done, scooping out sour cream or applesauce onto our plates, stealing glances at the presents and chatting with family members we haven’t seen in a long time. Perhaps my niece will step away from the table to play with her iPad; maybe this year, I’ll spin a gimel when I compete against her during our game of dreidel. One thing I know for sure is there’s much to learn about Hanukkah and the tale of its imperfect but valorous hero, whose morals we may not necessarily emulate but certainly comprehend, whose striving against obstacles still resonates in our hearts to this day. There’s good reason why we tell his tale over and over, from year to year, from the first night to the eighth. Because the lessons he taught mean a lot to us, even in 2015. Because we can learn about freedom from a man who lived 2,000 years ago and understand what he battled for is never easily won.

I won’t soon forget that. This Sunday, I’ll remember, too.

About the Author
Simon Hardy Butler is a writer and editor living in New York City. He has written for publications ranging from Zagat to Adweek and has interviewed innumerable people—including two Auschwitz survivors whose story may be heard at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s website. His views and opinions are his own.
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