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The Real Struggle for Chanukah

"I don’t understand how you Americans celebrate the holiday of Chanukah – you give gifts, you eat latkes – don’t you know what the story of Chanukah is about?"

This intriguing question, posed to me during a visit to an Israeli middle school last November, struck me on several levels. What is really at the heart of the Chanukah story? What might Jews in North America consider during this holiday time? What is the story of Chanukah, how does it relate to our current Jewish journey, and how does it resonate through the ages both backward and forward?

In the recent Torah portion, "vayyishlah," we are told of Jacob’s encounter and struggle with someone. The identity of this adversary is left unclear by the text. What is clear is that Jacob must contend with his own identity and his view of himself before he can reunite with his brother. Jacob believes that he faces a dire existential threat from Esau, but he also faces a threat from within. Jacob finds himself dealing with an internal struggle at the very time he must contend with this external threat. Both must be resolved for Jacob to continue his journey "home."

When we tell our children the abridged story of Chanukah, it often involves the miracle of oil lasting eight nights, with a brief discussion of the superhero Judah Maccabee and through his example, the victory of the Jewish will to survive. Our celebrations then generally consist of eating latkes and doughnuts; lighting the menorah, opening some gifts, and maybe singing a Chanukah song or two.

The themes of Chanukah run far deeper and remain more relevant than the mythic account of the miracle of the oil we recount for our children. The story of Chanukah is much more complicated, and actually far more relevant for Jews today than most realize. It is about the ongoing struggle for freedom in the face of oppression. Yet it wasn’t just an external battle the Jews were waging; there was also an internal battle, Jew against Jew, which was being carried out during this period. The Jews at the time of the Macaabees were struggling with how much influence they should allow from the Hellenistic culture which surrounded them, and how much they should accept those members of the Jewish community that chose to live or not live a Hellenistic lifestyle. In this regards the story also tells a tale of oppression from within. Some Jews were assimilating completely into the Hellenism of the dominant culture. Some Jews were struggling to find a way to remain Jewish and to live within the dominant culture of the time. The Maccabean revolt fought against all influences of Greek culture and targeted Hellenized Jews as well as the forces of Antiochus IV.

The question of how we maintain our Jewishness within a non-Jewish society is at the heart of the story of Chanukah. Unfortunately, even though it is highly relevant to the struggles of today’s North American Jewish communities, it is largely absent from the story we relate today. The struggle is often felt most strongly within intermarried families when it comes time to celebrate during the American holiday season. Should your family celebrate both sets of tradition? And if so, how? And if you do choose to celebrate both sets of traditions how will your Jewish friends and community members respond? (Or should you simply hide it from them?)

While the Rabbis consider Chanukah to be a minor holiday, it is one of the most widely celebrated Jewish holidays in North America. While its popularity currently can be attributed to its association with the American secular holiday season, it should serve as a significant Jewish holiday due to the nature of its story. Chanukah is a tale of Jewish struggle, demonstrating both the internal and external battles our community has contended with. It may be considered a "minor" holiday, but the issues and ideas associated with Chanukah are central to our Jewish story and must be resolved as we continue our Jewish journey.

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