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David Rafferty Finding Christmas in Hanukkah

December 23, 2018

If you didn’t know, Hanukkah has concluded already because as many adherents would say, it was “early” this year. “Early?” Relative to what? Why, Christmas, of course. Just one more indication of how some contemporary Jewish people view a holiday that gets puffed up in importance so Jewish kids won’t feel left out during the Christmas season. But what if I were to tell you that the true meaning of this Festival of Lights actually flips the script and makes a seemingly second-rate holiday the most important part of the Christmas story since three wise men looked to the sky and said, “What’s that light?”

“Hanukkah is a complicated holiday — it’s not what people think it is,” says author and cantor J.D. Kleinke. “It’s not our Christmas. It’s not quite the happy simple story that we tell our children.” Ah, the story. We tell the children that a small band of Jewish patriots defeated an evil army to preserve Jewish culture and that as proof of the miracle there was menorah oil that burned for eight days instead of one. But like Kleinke says, the reality is more complicated.

You see, Hanukkah celebrates more of a culture war than an actual war. The actual fighting was more of a civil war than one of aggressor and defender. In the limited space I have, let’s just say that after the fall of Alexander the Great and the rise of Greek kings in the Levant, many Jews were broadening their interpretation of the faith, adopting a more Greek way of life, and becoming progressive Jewish Hellenists.

After a time, the Greek king Antiochus put down a nativist Jewish rebellion against these Hellenistic Jews, but instead of capitulating, a band of what we would today call guerrillas was formed, calling themselves the Maccabees. It took many battles but the smaller force of Maccabees ultimately defeated Antiochus’ army, returned to Jerusalem, rid the temple of its Hellenistic idolatry and rededicated it for the nativist Jews. That day of dedication became Hanukkah. To celebrate after winning, a new menorah was built but there was only enough oil for one day, yet it lasted eight. So there you have it, eight days of Hanukkah.

Unlike American Christmas though, Hanukkah never got its Linus moment, when the Peanuts character recites scripture from Luke describing what Christmas is all about in “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Hanukkah is misunderstood, confusing even to many Jews, even the parts about the menorah. Hanukkah is essentially a celebration of a war of ideologies. Or as Kleinke puts it, “It was us versus us, not us against the Greeks or Syrians.”

Now while the Hellenists considered themselves Jews, they had assimilated more into the Greek culture in which they lived. The Maccabees were radical fundamentalists who not only wanted to purge the Greeks, but their own countrymen who did not ascribe to the literal word of the Torah. Or to put it in a more contemporary way, the Hellenists were Jews who were starting to expand their liberal, democratic worldview, all while still adhering to, yet building on, the principles outlined in the founding documents of their faith. While the Maccabees were religious fanatics who lived in the past, believing that only through strict, absolute adherence to the sacred founding documents of Judaism could the Jewish people ever survive. But winners as they say write history; so the fundamentalist, backward looking guerrilla fighters are the heroes in this story. But what if it were different?

Remember, this all happened 139 years before Jesus was born. Imagine now being born into a world where the Maccabees lost and the Hellenist Jews prevailed. Where in the time of Herod and Pilate, most Jews are still free to worship the god of Abraham, but are more comfortably assimilated into Greek and Roman culture and therefore unlikely to be oppressed. Maybe there’s no unrest in the Levant, nobody is looking for messiahs anymore, and so preachers and prophets who wander out of the desert are ignored and forgotten to history. Hanukkah may not be the holiday modern Jews think it is, but here’s the kicker: no Hanukkah, likely no Christmas. Imagine that.

David Rafferty is a Greenwich resident.

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