Soon the lights will be kindled, the latkes will be frying and shopping for the right gifts will send us to malls and Judaica shops throughout the county. Yes, the Chanukah season will be upon us. Now, doesn’t that sound like something from that other holiday this time of year? Well, it didn’t start out that way, but lo and behold, Chanukah has definitely evolved, and what was once a minor holiday has, for many, become the favorite and most anticipated one in the Jewish calendar.
The story of Chanukah goes something like this. Over 2,000 years ago, Jews lived as an autonomous people in the land of Israel, controlled by the Greeks in Syria. For the most part they were free to follow their own faith, maintain their own jobs and engage in trade. But that changed when Antiochus IV Epiphanes became King.
Under his reign, Jews were gradually forced to violate the precepts of their faith. The Jews rebelled, and as a result the Temple was looted, Jews were massacred and Judaism was effectively outlawed. When Antiochus ordered an altar to Zeus be built in the Temple, the Jewish priest Mattathias and his five sons led a rebellion against Antiochus. After two years of war, the Jewish revolt was successful; the Temple was liberated and rededicated. Once Judah Maccabee won the victory for Jewish tradition, he proceeded to institute a new holiday—Chanukah.
But there’s a slightly darker side to the story. Antiochus’ decrees against Jewish practice were actually imposed at the request of a group of Hellenized Jews who resented that Jewish law was the law of the land and wanted to be part of the Greek civilization.
The Maccabees’ mixture of spiritual and military resistance took some ironic turns. Once they triumphed, the Maccabees imposed their rule, expanded the borders of the Jewish state and forcibly converted the people they conquered to Judaism. They also came into conflict with the rabbis who thought political leaders should be descendants of the House of David and that there should be a separation of political power from the priesthood.
Alas, the Maccabees, who ruled for a century, proved as flawed as any other dynasty. Through their misuse of power and infighting, they ultimately paved the way for Roman rule and a halt to Jewish independence for 1,900 years.
When the rabbis of Talmud had to deal with this new holiday, they were challenged with Jewry’s survival after the loss of Jewish sovereignty and power. It was the time of Roman rule, and so the rabbis created and stressed the divine “miracle of the oil” rather than the military victory and rule of the Maccabees.
Chanukah has continued to evolve and change—especially in America. But until recently, its observance paled next to the High Holy Days, Passover, even Purim.
Lighting Chanukah candles soon became the favorite “mitzvah,” and its ability to be redefined added to its popularity. The Chanukah lesson taught now was the triumph over religious intolerance—a perfect message for liberal America in the age of the Civil Rights movement.
As Jews have become more integrated into American life, Chanukah has embedded itself in our culture. Not to be outdone by the lights of that other holiday, many Jews decorate their homes with strings of electric menorahs, dreidels or Magen Davids. Jews have also extended gift-giving to adults.
Except within some Orthodox communities, Chanukah has been thoroughly transformed into a major festival. While some religious leaders see this as another instance of the Jews’ perilous assimilation, others see a brighter side to it.
Rabbi Alter Tenenbaum of Chabad in Irvine pointed out that Chanukah was always “advertised.” “We were encouraged to put candle lights in the windows to publicize Chanukah,” he said. “So we can take advantage of its growth by making people aware of its message.”
“There is nothing wrong with Jewish children having a significant Jewish holiday when the dominant society is celebrating one of their two major holidays,” said Rabbi Arnold Rachlis of University Synagogue. “However, it is important not to confuse Chanukah with Christmas in Jewish households and to emphasize that part of the Chanukah story whose theme is religious freedom.”
How does a community maintain its identity in relation to the broader culture? How much should outside influences be resisted, and how much embraced?
Perhaps we can look at the recent evolution of Chanukah, not as a capitulation to the forces of Christmas, but as a rekindling of Jewishness amid a multicultural society.
Florence L. Dann, a fourth-year rabbinical student at the Academy for Jewish Religion in L.A., has been a contributing writer to JLife since 2004 and currently teaches English as Second Language to adults.