Eight colorful Hanukkah candles, lit, against a dark background

Hanukkah Is not Your Cell Phone

Eight colorful Hanukkah candles, lit, against a dark background

By אליעד מלין (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

At least two organizations, PJ Library and JewBelong, are floating around memes about Hanukkah that have me…unimpressed. Basically, they tell you that your cell phone with a near-dead battery lasting for eight days is what Hanukkah is about. (I put these two memes at the bottom of this post.)

I can’t even with this idea. (And yes, here’s a preliminary “get off my lawn.”)

Let’s talk tachlis here. (“Talk tachlis” = Yiddish phrase that’s pretty equivalent to “let’s get down to brass tacks.”) These memes basically peddle the idea that modern, educated Jews should rest assured that their knowledge of the story of “the miracle of the oil” is enough to understand Hanukkah. It’s like when your cell phone is going to shut down, but somehow manages to just keep on plugging.

Um…no. Continue reading

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Hanukkah is Calling

(A substantially similar version of this was delivered as a Hanukkah meditation at Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church’s Spirit Experience: Winter Holidays & Holy Days event on December 16, 2017, in Kensington, MD.)

Hanukkah is kind of a weird holiday.

Even if you know that it’s not “Jewish Christmas,” the story of Hanukkah is probably a little fuzzy to you.

Many Jews celebrate Hanukkah as a holiday about freedom. In fact, some of the founders of the State of Israel imagined themselves as modern-day Maccabees, the freedom fighters of the Hanukkah story.

But it’s not a holiday about freedom—not really. Even if you really like Peter Paul & Mary’s “Light One Candle.”

It’s a holiday created by Jewish religious zealots after they defeated a coalition of Greeks and Greek-friendly Jewish allies in a war. Once in power, those religious zealots became as corrupt as any who came before them. They weren’t so religious any longer, and turned out to be just like any other bunch of kings: out for themselves.

One of the last descendants of the original Maccabees invited the Romans to Palestine to resolve a family squabble. That ended any form of Jewish political independence for 2000 years.

Oppressive tyrants who manage to lose their country? Hanukkah as freedom festival sounds a little silly after all that.

Or there’s the story of the oil in the Temple. Sometimes we tell a story about how, when the Maccabees—the religious zealots—regained the temple in Jerusalem, they only had enough oil to keep the temple’s lamps lit for one day. But miraculously, somehow, the lamps stayed lit for eight days, long enough to make more oil.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The rabbis of the middle ages didn’t really think this story was the point of Hanukkah. They told it in order to remind children about the basics of the holiday. The real miracle, as far as the rabbis were concerned, was that the Maccabees—the Jewish Taliban of its time—could defeat the Greeks. They were certain that this could only happen through divine intervention.

So Hanukkah wasn’t really about the oil, or freedom. For centuries, Hanukkah was about divine intervention. That makes a lot of sense if you’re victims of pogroms and persecution, but it’s not something that speaks as clearly to many Jews today.

So if the stories we usually tell about Hanukkah aren’t quite right, and if the history of Hanukkah isn’t a nice one, why have Hanukkah? What is Hanukkah?

Hanukkah is often called, in Hebrew, the chag urim—the Festival of Lights. Before Hanukkah—for perhaps a thousand years of Jewish history!—Jews had no winter holiday. There was no celebration of the solstice. We had no way to chase away the darkness with our own light! Our Roman neighbors had Saturnalia; our Greek neighbors had Dionysia; we had…nothing.

Nothing—until we had Hanukkah. And then we had a festival of lights. Each night of Hanukkah we could light one more candle, bringing more and more light into a world getting increasingly dark as the winter solstice—the darkest, shortest day of the year—drew near.

Hanukkah is also called chag Chanukat ha-bayit: the festival of rededicating the Temple. Hanukkah is a holiday of dedication. That is what Hanukkah means in Hebrew—dedication, or rededication. The Maccabees rededicated the Temple in Jerusalem after Greeks took it over and used it for their form of worship, and gave Hanukkah its name.

Hanukkah: festival of rededication, and festival of light.

Eight nights long, Hanukkah demands dedication—not of a physical temple, but of ourselves.

The days are getting shorter, the nights longer, the wind colder. But it is when it is darkest that even a little new light shines the brightest.

In the darkest days of the year, in dark days for justice and for righteousness and for love, on this Hanukkah I invite you to hear yourself calling.

Hear yourself calling upon you to bring a little new light, so that it may shine in the darkness. Hear your inner self calling you to dedicate yourself to making sure that the warmth of new light is not overcome by the cold winds that trouble our times.

And so, I offer this blessing—this dedication for our celebration of light: May we find in this deepening winter the light within ourselves that needs so desperately to brighten the darkness, and may we find the strength to let our light shine for all. Let us dedicate ourselves to doing the work needed to bring forth better, brighter times—speedily, and in our days.

Kein yehi—may it be so.

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?

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.

Continue reading

Eight colorful Hanukkah candles, lit, against a dark background

Havdal-ukah: A Humanistic Havdalah and Hanukkah Celebration

Eight colorful Hanukkah candles, lit, against a dark background

By אליעד מלין (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

After the seriousness of my last post, it felt like it was time to have a little fun. And, of course, Hanukkah is coming soon!

I posted a few resources last year, including this post with humanistic blessings, some thoughts about Hanukkah for humanistic Jews, and some general resources on Hanukkah for secular and humanistic Jews.

BUT…

If you’re in the Indianapolis area and you’d like to come to a Humanistic Jewish Hanukkah celebration, have I got the event for you! Havdal-ukah!

Why Havdal-ukah? Because it’s Havdalah (the end of Shabbat) and the seventh night of Hanukkah wrapped up into one package! We’ll do a brief Havdalah celebration, light our menorahs (you can bring your own!), have latkes and other treats, and learn a little about the meaning of Hanukkah for modern (especially secular and humanistic) Jews.

So come on out! We’ll be meeting at 4:00 p.m. on Saturday, December 12, 2015. The Church Within has graciously allowed us to use their space at 1125 Spruce Street, Indianapolis, in the historic Fountain Square area. You can RSVP on Meetup.com or Facebook and get a notice when there’s a change.

“It’s a Trap!,” or, How the Torah’s Narrative Blames Joseph for the Israelites’ Slavery

Well, it’s been a bit of time since I did a post on the weekly parashah. Let’s break that trend.

This week we have Parshat Vayigash, the second-to-last Torah portion in Genesis. Vayigash starts with the story’s big reveal: Joseph yet lives. His brothers and father come to Egypt to live during the famine.

Hooray, right? Well…there’s this, in Genesis 47:19:

Buy us and our land with bread.

It turns out that the Joseph story puts the narrative’s enslavement of the Israelites at Joseph’s feet. Surprised? Read on.

Continue reading

A Maccabean Corrective, or, Really, Tablet? Really!?

I’ve been holding this in, but I can hold no longer.

Tablet Magazine published an article titled, “The Maccabees Would Never Have Canceled ‘The Interview’.” I’m not going to delve into the free speech, North Korea, censorship or not, or other debates going on here; you can get that someplace else.

No, I’m almost literally banging my head against the desk because…Maccabees!?

Let’s get it straight: the Maccabees were pietists. My guess is that had films existed in the second century B.C.E., the Maccabees would have happily slapped a ban on “The Interview”–and likely thousands of other films. They were not 21st century-style First Amendment crusaders; that’s kind of precluded by the whole bit where they were happy to slaughter Jews and Greeks alike who didn’t behave as the Maccabees thought was appropriate.

If you want Sony to release the film, fine. But find a real argument for that–it’s not part of Hanukkah, and it surely isn’t part of the Maccabean worldview.

Like the old ABC public service announcements might say, “The more you know…”

Humanistic Blessing for Hanukkah

The top of a Hanukkah menorah with two candles lit

Our menorah for the first night of Hanukkah

(Note: updated 12/21/14 to add vocalized Hebrew and transliterations. If you observe errors or have questions, please feel free to drop a comment below. Also, see other Hanukkah posts here, here, and here.)

In Secular Humanistic Judaism, we put a premium on saying what you mean and meaning what you say when it comes to liturgy. I point this out because it has implications for what one says on holidays and in other liturgical contexts If you follow that guidepost of Secular Humanistic Judaism, the traditional blessings for Hanukkah won’t do.

There are established alternatives within the movement, and we used two blessings last night for the Hanukkah candles. Continue reading

Oil-Burning Hamsa Hanukkiyah

Hipster Hanukkah Myth Busting

Oil-Burning Hamsa Hanukkiyah

Oil-Burning Hamsa Hanukkiyah

Continuing on the Hanukkah theme, for the last year or two I’ve wanted to try using oil instead of candles for Hanukkah. This year, Mrs. Secular Jew bought me an oil-burning hanukkiyah (Hanukkah menorah) so I could try it out. Think of it as a kind of “hipster” Hanukkah thing–let’s use a purportedly old-style hanukkiyah and some olive oil and get all hipster-ironic-“I was doing this before it was cool”!

But because I wanted to actually do this during Hanukkah and had never used oil before, I decided to do a “dry” run. (Get it? Because oil isn’t dry! Well, I thought it was funny.)

My thoughts? They must have used a TON of olive oil to keep the menorah lit in the Second Temple. Or maybe not…

Continue reading