“Which Hanukkah will you be observing this year?” The question, put to me by my friend Ken, caught me off guard.
“The only one there is,” I shot back. “The one with the candles and the latkes and the donuts. The one with all those songs we sang back in Hebrew school. The one my kids learned about here in pre-school, when the ‘light’ half of the class, dressed in white, drove away the ‘darkness’ half in black at all those pageants for the parents.”
“No, no, no,” said Ken. “You’ve got them all mixed up.”
“No, not who—what!”
“What?” I asked, bewildered. “Which ‘what’?”
Ken realized he had to sort this out for me. “There’s more than one Hanukkah,” he explained.
“There are at least four.”
“There are?” I asked. “All at the same time, or at different times?”
“All at the same time—well, at the same time on the calendar, anyway. One of them isn’t around anymore, though.”
“Which one is that?” I asked, grasping at a chance to tease out at least one thread of Ken’s thinking from what looked to me like a jumble of strands.
“The one from the Books of Maccabees,” he said. “There, Hanukkah is about God saving the Jews from their oppressive Seleucid rulers and crowning the Hasmoneans as high priests and kings.”
“Wait, isn’t that the same as the Hanukkah I celebrate with my menorah and candles?”
Ken saw that I was listening. He smiled and shook his head gently. “Not really. That’s the Hanukkah of the Rabbis of the Talmud. They wanted us to focus on God’s miraculous intervention, not on the Hasmonean kings. In fact, they weren’t too fond of the Maccabees and didn’t really approve of how their descendants had behaved.”
“Oh.” I paused. “Wait, that still leaves two more.”
“Right. There’s the Hanukkah that everyone here in Israel celebrates. That couldn’t be more different from the Rabbis’ Hanukkah.”
“What do you mean? Doesn’t everyone celebrate the Jewish people being saved from their oppressors?”
Ken was ready, as usual, with an answer. “Yes, but saved by whom? The Rabbis insisted it was God’s doing, but the Zionists say it was the Maccabees themselves. Think of all those Hanukkah songs that call them things like moshia‘ ufodeh— ‘savior and redeemer’—the Maccabees and not God! Or the song that announces, ‘no miracles happened to us; we didn’t find any cruse of oil.’ The Zionists hijacked Hanukkah.”
“Now, wait just a minute,” I said, surprised to find that I already had an opinion of my own. “You just got through telling me that the earliest accounts in the Books of Maccabees celebrated the military victories. So the Zionists didn’t invent that.”
“No, but they did give it a whole new context: fighting Jews, military heroes who take responsibility for their own fate and don’t just wait around to be saved or pray for that to happen.”
“And that’s what they taught us in school in America, right?”
“I don’t think so,” said Ken. “The way I learned it, Hanukkah wasn’t really about any of those things. Remember the English version of Ma‘oz Tsur?”
To my surprise, I did. I started singing: “Rock of Ages, let our song praise Thy saving po-o-wer. Thou amidst the thundering foe wast our shelt’ring to-o-wer….”
Ken stopped me. “Skip to the last part, “ he said, and without waiting he recited the words: “Children of the martyr race, whether free or fettered, / Wake the echo of the songs where you may be scattered. / Yours the message cheering/ That the time is nearing / Which will see / All men free, / Tyrants disappearing.”
“I always suspected they weren’t giving us the same thing in Hebrew that we were getting in English.”
“Right! For Americans, and for people all over the English-speaking world, Hanukkah became a celebration of religious freedom. It’s not just about the Jews, and it’s certainly not about God doing miracles.” He paused. “So… which Hanukkah are you celebrating?”
“I kinda like the Hanukkah we got in America, the one about the right to be different. We needed to fight for that right, but we’re not the only ones who need to have that right guaranteed. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a world where no one had to fight for it as our ancestors did?”
“Sounds good to me.”
“But we’ll still have sufganiyot, won’t we?”
“Ah, yes, another basic right!” said Ken. Finally, I understood him.