When you’re not part of the club and everyone around you is and is having a grand time, it is a royal pain in the neck. For me that was what Christmas was like in Minnesota. If I forgot what the holiday was all about, I might have been able to enjoy it. But I couldn’t really forget. It signified the birth of a religion that has caused untold grief and misery to my people and no series of pretty songs cover up that fact. We had Hanukkah to console us, a tiny blip on the calendar that got magnified all out of proportion because of its proximity to the Christmas behemoth just around the corner.
Here in Jerusalem, however, you really can’t tell that Christmas is coming unless you really strain and try. There are no “holiday” lights in the streets, no bombardment of ads pushing you to by gifts, no Christmas specials on TV, nor Christmas carols in the air. If it weren’t for BBC Prime and Star World on TV, you would hardly know the holiday existed. I honestly can’t complain. But for those non Jews among you who are receiving this, I have to say that living here in December would teach you on a gut level what being Jewish in the Midwestern United States is all about.
To drive the point home, the majority of Christians in Israel are of the “Orthodox” persuasion, that is to say they belong to one of the Christian Orthodox churches of the Middle East and Eastern Europe. This means that they celebrate Christmas by the Julian calendar, about 17 or 18 days later than the Christians in Western Europe and the United States. December 25th is a workday here and has little importance because the “Western” Christians are not a real presence in the Middle East. Christmas doesn’t get serious around here until after January 1st.
Here, Hanukkah is the not the tiny blip on the calendar that is in the rest of the world. It is a holiday welcomed and yearned for, especially by children, because it means a week off from school. Many adults get the week off too, so vacations are planned around the holiday. Also, it is a nice break after seven weeks of no holidays at all.
There will be a series of parties focusing on the first couple of days of the holiday featuring latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyót (jelly filled doughnuts), there will be trips to Modi’ím (now the modern city of Modi’in)and surrounding areas, the home of the Hasmonean family that started the successful rebellion against Greek Syrian rule. And of course, there will be the gifts and family get-togethers
Just like Christmas, Hanukkah has its dark sides. For Christians, the dark side of Christmas is the endless commercialization of the holiday and the post holiday depression that inevitably comes in its wake for some. For Hanukkah, in addition to the post holiday depression that some of us are prone to, there is the uncomfortable fact that Hanukkah is really about a civil war between Jews who wanted to live their lives according to Jewish law and custom and the “Mityavním,” those who wanted to assimilate into the dominant Greek culture around them.
This struggle is so uncomfortable because it is taking place in Israel right now, between those Jews who want to live by Jewish law and custom and those who want to assimilate into the dominant American culture and values infiltrating the country (and the rest of the world). Israelis are so uncomfortable with this fact that they don’t really want to talk about it at all. The split between the “Hiloním,” (secular Jews) and religious Jews is deep and bitter. Right now it is being papered over by unity against the Arab terror, but should the terror come to an end or significantly abate, this deep split in Israeli society between those who don’t want religion to play a significant role in the country and those who do will show up right away.
There is a second dark side to this holiday, one that is less controversial and is thus explored a bit more often. For this I need to delve into history a bit – some of you might want to nap at this point – for the next three or four paragraphs, anyway.
The Greek Syrian (Seleucid) empire that ruled Judea 2,200 years ago conquered it in a war with Egypt’s Ptolemaic Empire; another Greek empire spawned by conquests of Alexander the Great, who had conquered the region 100 years earlier. During that war, the armies of the Greek Syrian empire would have been even more successful but for the intervention of a man who took his sandal off near Gaza and with it drew a line in the sand. He told the Greek Syrians that if they crossed that line there would be war with his own employer – the Roman Senate. From that point on, the Egyptian kingdom was a protectorate of the new power on the horizon, Rome.
When he was fighting Antiochus Epiphanes, Judah the Maccabee must have thought he was awful clever to send a large bribe along with an ambassador to the Roman Senate to obtain a letter of friendship from that body. He got the letter, and after he died in battle, his brother Jonathan and after him, his brother Shimon, renewed the letter of friendship. That letter, amongst other things, stopped the Greek Syrian empire from devoting its full attention to rooting out the stubborn Jewish rebels in their border province in the south. Judea eventually became almost independent of the Greek Syrian empire. But there would be a price to be paid. Had Judah the Maccabee understood that price; he might never have consented to seek friendship with Rome.
When the Greek Syrian Empire started to fall apart, the Romans became the “sole superpower” in the region. They demanded from the Jewish kingdom the right to a naval base in Acre (just north of modern Haifa) and started to meddle in the politics of the country. Eventually and inevitably, they absorbed Judea into their own expanding empire. They chose as their tool the angry and ambitious prince of the Idumaians whose people had been forcibly converted to Judaism just a few decades before and who therefore hated Jews. His name was Hordos, known to history as Herod of Idumaia. The accession of Hordos completed the corruption of Jewish institutions and led to dreams of national salvation and revolt against the new persecutors, Rome. The unsuccessful rebellion against Roman rule 1,930 years ago cost us our Temple and resulted in the exile our people have suffered until the rise of the modern State of Israel.
In other words, Hanukkah is really a chapter in the painful tale resulting in the destruction of ancient Judea and our Second Temple – a brief bright note in a sad symphony. It commemorates an independent state that ultimately failed. Buried under Hanukkah candle lighting ceremonies, the parties and the stories of bravery is a stern warning for those of us who live in the new independent state.
Having said all this about Hanukkah, I don’t want anyone to think that we don’t have our own equivalent of the Christmas spirit, a time when people are of good cheer and wish each other peace as a matter of course. Markets are filled with shoppers who rush with their shopping to meet a deadline. Buses are crowded with people carrying heavy packages and flowers home, sometimes even gifts. In restaurants, friends slap each other on the back, and smile as they have animated conversations with each other. The bus stations are crowded with people taking trips, and with soldiers going home.
And we have this equivalent of the Christmas spirit 52 times a year, every single Friday and Saturday. It’s called the Sabbath.