by Michael Sarko
– The Capitol Hill Times –
The holiday season in the United States is, in a word, complicated. It’s a yearly struggle between fundamental purity and messy inclusiveness, between ritual and commerce, between tribalism and cosmopolitanism. Christmas is the big deal of the season, as it probably should be, but it doesn’t have a monopoly on intricate meaning. Hanukkah, an eight-day festival that starts Saturday, is far more than the second-fiddle holiday its modern reputation suggests.
Lighthearted with candles, presents, and jelly doughnuts, Hanukkah is actually an observance born out of one military conflict among many that erupted during an era of great change. In the 2nd Century BCE, Judea, land of the Jewish people, had the misfortune of existing between two of the fractured kingdoms struggling in the wake of Alexander the Great’s death. The southern Ptolemaic kingdom in Egypt vied for the same slice of Earth as the Seleucid Empire in Syria, and neither were especially fond of Jewish culture. The Seleucids ultimately took control, essentially outlawing Judaism under pain of death following a disastrous fight to determine who would sit in the position of the High Priest of the Jewish Temple. Essentially, court intrigue soured Seleucid leader Antiochus IV on Judaism as a whole, so he tried to scuttle an entire religion.
What Antiochus got for his trouble was a guerrilla rebellion of religious fundamentalists led by one Judah Maccabee. The revolt ousted the Seleucid contingent in Judea and a counter-revolution failed to materialize because Antiochus IV died, creating strife back home in Syria through an ugly succession process. The Jewish Temple was rededicated and since then, Jews have celebrated the victory on Hanukkah.
So, what does all of this history have to do with blue wrapping paper and potato latkes? More than is readily apparent. The Maccabee revolt was about the preservation of pure Jewish culture amid a concerted effort to drown it in foreign influence. It’s more than a little ironic to now celebrate that rebellion by assimilating to the tones of the American holiday season. Hanukkah used not to be about gift giving or slightly Semitic carols. It was an obscure observance that seemed only to come to prominence as the other holidays around it became bright and flashy like neon lights.
And yet, stringing lights around Hanukkah has not drowned Jewish culture, but called more attention to it. By sacrificing some of the ritual purity of holidays like Hanukkah and Christmas, Jews and gentiles can acknowledge one another’s traditions with a degree of approachable familiarity. There’s something very American about that.
It should also be noted that the story of the Maccabees doesn’t stop at the re-dedication of the Jewish Temple. Once scrappy rebels, the Maccabees became kings and generals at the helm of the Hasmonean Dynasty, fighting further wars, transforming their struggle for religious freedom into their own brand of religious oppression, and ultimately losing everything to the Roman Republic. There’s a lesson there, too. There’s no purity in war, no salvation in oppression, and no stopping the outside world from breaking the isolation of fundamentalism.
Taken as an ongoing process and not just the commemoration of a successful military campaign, Hanukkah is more about the peace of compromise than the victory of the underdog. In modern bodies politic like America where Jewish culture thrives, we varied denizens share the stories and quirks of religions and civilizations so strange, so ancient that we can’t help but laugh about all of us ending up in the same place. We’re reminded every holiday season that there’s universal appeal in the Christmas traditions of family, charity, and not just a little shopping. Likewise, anyone who has ever struggled to be respected, who has ever held onto hope against daunting odds, or just acknowledged the deliciousness of fried potatoes must admit that Hanukkah isn’t just for Jews.