16 December 2006

A New Take on Chanukah

I am a Hebrew school teacher cursed with "not enough time" to give my talmidim some Yiddishkeit to even out the other aspects of their lives. Chanukah takes on a larger significance than it should due to this situation.

Is it because, to many of these kids, this is one of the most well-known (if not most observed) of our holidays by both Jews and non-Jews?

Is it because my "half and halfs" (their word, not mine) feel conflicted and guilty about loyalties more so at this time of year? [The Easter/Passover quandry does not seem so common, perhaps due to the lack of gifts, with Easter seeming to only offer chocolate bunnies.]

Let's face facts, it's about the presents, gelt, etc, right?

This year, I had made the decision to return to school in order to pursue my Master's. One of the required courses is a survey of Jewish history that is spread out over two semesters. Last spring, our professor assigned sections of the Books of the Maccabees, which are not in TaNaKh. I had to seek out the text on-line, which is only available on certain websites. I started to see some differences between the "kiddie" version that we were all taught (and I still teach) and what was in the text. First of all, the battle to reclaim Beit ha-Mikdash was one of many battles (and it didn't end with this one). Second, and this was a point that didn't totally connect until we were discussing the rabbi's drasha today at the Shabbat table, but...how much was this a battle against assimilation? Can an obvious (and perhaps not so obvious) parallel be drawn to what is happening to us today?

If the Chanukah story is put into a historical perspective (which is okay since it is NOT in the TaNaKh), you see that we (the Jews) got along great with the Y'vanim for 160 years (the time between Alexander the Great and Antiochus). We happily assimilated into Greek culture, giving up many of our traditions. It was only when we were ORDERED to not keep Shabbat or study Torah that we rebelled. The rabbi told a story about Alan Dershowitz, who grew up frum. Over the years, he kept fewer and fewer of the mitzvot, but continued to keep a kosher home. One day, someone made the observation to Dershowitz that since he gave up so much of it, why was he bothering to even keep kosher any longer? B'kitzur, he kept kosher for one year longer than he intended to just to contradict the observation.

It seems that when something is forbidden (even when you willingly gave it up before), suddenly there seems to be a fight to keep it. According to the rabbi, that is what made the Maccabim get up and fight. In the text, Antiochus came back from a failed battle in Egypt (to win land that kept being traded back and forth by the descendants of Alexander the Great's successors) and took out his frustration on the residents of Yerushalayim.

Are modern Jews made of the same stuff as our forebears over 2100 years ago? Among us there are yidden who will associate with a bagel and cream cheese and celebrate "Chrismukkah" (complete with the ham baking in the oven while the menorah is burning in the window). What were to happen if they were told that all vestiges of Jewish observance was being stripped away, to no longer exist? Would they care or would a lot of them just accept it and move on?

I tell my students there's a reason why we have out-lasted most of the ancient civilizations that had conquered us. Who hears about Babylon or Persia anymore? As for the Greeks and Romans, they are small parts of Europe.

Please offer up your suggestions and have a chag ha-urim sameach...
cool yiddishe mama

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