Spirit of the Maccabees

Published December 26, 2003, issue of December 26, 2003.
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Along with candle-lighting, gift-giving and deep-fried foods, the festival of Chanukah has lately acquired a new ritual that seems rapidly to be gaining canonical status in American Judaism: a yearly barrage of high-minded commentary intended to pour cold water on the fun. No Chanukah celebration is complete these days without a few stern reminders that the holiday, one of the high points on the American Jewish calendar, is not what we think it is.

Before embracing our families, opening our gifts and reveling in the joys of being Jewish during a season when the rest of society is pushing us into the shadows, we now need to be told that this holiday we love is really not all that significant. More important, we need to remember that the day’s central theme is not the celebration of freedom that most of us think it is, but rather an attack on the very values of freedom that most of us hold dear.

The debunkers have a point, of course. Chanukah was not a major holiday to Jews in Poland or Yemen. It was only when they came to America that Jews inflated the once-minor festival into a big blowout.

The reason we have done so is twofold. First, timing: Chanukah fills the empty hole left in the souls of American Jewish children during the Christmas season, when everyone around them is filled with a seasonal cheer in which they have no part. Second, the message: By celebrating religious freedom and the right to be different, Chanukah affirms the values that let us maintain our Jewish identity while participating fully in American society, as is our right.

Well, not so fast, the debunkers say. The original message of Chanukah, they remind us, was not exactly religious freedom, but more like religious purity. The Maccabees’ battle was not for individual conscience, but for the preservation of traditional Judaism in the face of Hellenism, the secularist mass culture of its day. Their enemies were not just Judea’s Syrian Greek overlords, but the Jewish assimilationists of the day who sought to participate in Greek culture at the cost of Jewish observance.

When you put it that way, Chanukah is not a comfort to all those kids trying to reconcile their American and Jewish selves, but more like a rebuke. Which, of course, is precisely the debunkers’ aim. This debate isn’t simply about historical accuracy, but about the politics of contemporary Jewish identity. The debunkers’ message is that tradition is good, and that modernism and integration in the larger society are bad.

But modernists need not concede the fight so fast. American Jews have every right to embrace Chanukah and make it their own. In so doing they’re continuing a long tradition of Jewish communities wrestling with the calendar to make it their own. The Ninth of Av, once a commemoration of the destruction of the ancient Temple, has been inflated over the centuries to represent tragedies throughout Jewish history. The Ashkenazic Jews of Germany and Poland elevated Purim because it gave them a vicarious victory in a world filled with threats. Jews in Morocco created the Mimouna, now a major Sephardic festival that’s become a central day on the Israeli calendar. Scholars teach that even central holidays on the Jewish calendar, like Passover and Sukkot, had their roots as harvest festivals.

When American Jews make Chanukah a celebration of our right to live the way we want, we’re simply doing what Jews have done since time immemorial. Maybe the Maccabees would have recognized it, and maybe not. Either way, American Judaism has long since outgrown the need to apologize for itself.

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