Wood Dreidel. Imma Marín's private collection.

The Irony of Hanukkah Ascendant

I’ve posted an awful lot about Hanukkah on the blog over the last couple of years. I have an outsized affection for the holiday generally, I suspect. Not unhealthily outsized–I’ve not festooned the HJinI household in silver-and-blue tinsel and lights, put up a Hanukkah Harry lawn ornament, and issued cheesy holiday sweaters–but, you know, I like Hanukkah.

Wood Dreidel. Imma Marín's private collection.

Dreidel–symbol of assimilation? By Marionaaragay (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

More than that, I just find the background and its subsequent history fascinating. A lot of that has to do with Hanukkah being one of the very few Jewish holidays for which we have an awful lot of really rich source information from relatively close in time to the events that gave rise to the holiday. With all that stuff–so much more than we have for many other holidays–there’s a lot more complexity that comes through the historical record.

One of the more interesting aspects to me–and I’ve posted about it before–is the tension of modern Jewish life celebrating the Maccabees versus the Maccabees as they were. But a lot of that writing has been about the history behind Hanukkah.

Today, what I find myself particularly enjoying is the irony of the celebration itself.

Think of the traditional story of Hanukkah: the evil king tries to force Jews to abandon Judaism in favor of idolatry. A brave band refuses, fights back, and wins freedom for the Jews. They send the Greek king and his assimilating Jewish flunkies packing. If you’re not doing the theologically cleaned-up version of all this, you think Yahweh made this happen. And maybe you talk about the oil lasting eight days. Nes gadol hayah sham, and ta-da! Hanukkah, which we now celebrate by buying cheesy sweaters at Target, marketed alongside cheesy Christmas sweaters.

No, I really haven’t bought any cheesy sweaters. I promise.

Even (especially!) liberal Jewish leaders fret persistently about assimilation. Yet what are our Hanukkah celebrations, really? A winter holiday where we light candles to fight off the dark near the solstice. A kind of gambling game adopted from Germans, who in turn adopted it from the Irish or British in late antiquity and transported it to continental Europe. Now, gifts, though that’s not “original” to Hanukkah.

These are all things done mostly at home. Unlike Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the daily schedule is basically unaltered. Even in the Orthodox world, work continues, school continues.

In other words, Hanukkah–the anti-assimilation holiday–facilitates Jews being pretty much like their neighbors.

Isn’t it ironic? Don’t you think?

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Maccabees, Shmaccabees

Hanukkah starts in just a few days. (If you’re in Indianapolis and are interested in cultural alternatives in Jewish life, consider coming to the upcoming Havdal-ukah event!) Last year, I shared some thoughts I had at the time about Hanukkah, and suggested that what we miss in modern celebrations is that the thing that most makes our own time similar to Jewish life in the Maccabean period was the sheer diversity of Jewish life then and now.

This year, I want to take a closer look at what I think liberal Jews, in particular, need to keep in mind about the history of the Maccabean revolt and how that should play into Hanukkah celebrations.

To cut to the chase for those who don’t want to read on: we aren’t the Maccabees, we aren’t their heirs, and our holiday celebration should reflect that.

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