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The Real Story of Hanukkah

Eric Molinsky

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Sora Golob making latkes
(Eric Molinsky)
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Sunday is the first night of Hanukkah. Traditionally, Hanukkah was not a major holiday for Jews. The story of Hannukah isn't even in the Old Testament. But its position on the calendar gave American Jews a chance to enjoy the holiday season. So now Hanukkah is treated like a Jewish Christmas, complete with gift giving, games and specialized foods. In the United States, Hanukkah's assimilation can be a sensitive subject among Jews. But independent producer Eric Molinsky looked into the origins of Hanukkah and found that these tensions are nothing new.

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Sora Golob is making latkes, or potato pancakes, at my Brooklyn apartment. I asked Sora to come over because I wanted to talk with her about the meaning of Hanukkah. More than anyone I know, Sora has struggled with assimilation. She grew up in an ultra Orthodox Jewish community, which she describes as having a "Keeping up with the Joneses mentality," only about "how righteous you could be."

Sora always loved Hanukkah, especially the Maccabees - the pious heroes of the holiday who took on The Greek Empire. "Basically a bunch of yeshiva boys beat the equivalent of US Army at the time and regained their land back. I used to have the action figures," she says.

"Maccabee action figures?" I ask incredulously. "Absolutely," she affirms.

The real Maccabees were actually more problematic than Luke Skywalker or G.I. Joe. Let's back up for a minute: You're a Jew in ancient Jerusalem. Your country's just been taken over by the Greeks. But you have to admit, they have great theater, really interesting philosophers. Olympic games? Fantastic. So you show up at the gymnasium one day to throw the discus around with the gentiles, and you realize the athletes are naked.

"So these Jews would find themselves in a situation where their bodies were an affront to the culture [in which] they were participating," explains Rabbi Dan Ehrenkrantz, who has studied ancient Jewish life. "Some Jews went to all lengths to cover up their circumcisions, sometimes having surgery to uncircumcise themselves."

Ouch. Not every Hellenized Jew - as they were called - went that far. Many of them just wanted to be cosmopolitan. But the Maccabees - the heroes of Hanukkah - were fundamentalists. They killed their fellow Jews for the crime of acting Greek. Sora's family was not as hard core as the Macabees, but they did try to avoid American culture almost completely.

"And then I saw my mother watching TV on Shabbas when she didn't know I was home," she says. "It shattered my world." That's Shabbat - Saturday - the day of rest. An Orthodox Jew is not supposed to even turn on a light. "I ran the mile to shul and found my father and told him what had happened," she remembers. "He told me that he knew about it, and it was my job to make her religious again, because he couldn't."

For Sora, it was equivalent to catching one her parents having an affair, she explains, "and then having the other parent say, 'Oh, yes, I know about it--you talk to her about it, make her stop.'" She sank into depression.

Sora felt that being Jewish was all or nothing - no shades of grey. She started breaking rules all over the place, like the dress code. "I did wear a lot of neon," Sora recalls. "I'll admit to that. I'm from Jersey."

Sora could not resist the outside culture - and neither could the Maccabees. They defeated the Greeks and took back Israel, but it wasn't really a happy ending. Once in power, they became completely decadent and corrupt. That part of history is often intentionally ignored.

"If you ask most people, 'What is Hanukkah?' they will tell you about the miracle of the oil and the light that went on for eight days," says Rabbi Erenkranz. To him, it's particularly interesting, "given that the history behind the miracle is very suspect, whereas the history behind the political battle has much greater clarity."

Sora is still trying to figure out how to be a Jew in the modern world. When she visits her Orthodox family, she acts like them. But when they visit her, she doesn't change her secular lifestyle. That leads to tension. "At certain points, you might have to agree to disagree," Sora says.

But agreeing to disagree is rarely easy. "It's hard between anybody," Sora says. "But I think there's a lot to be learned if people would take the time."

Hanukkah could actually be an opportunity for dialogue among Jews. Rabbi Ehrankrantz says we can start with the word Hanukkah, which means dedication.

"What is it that we dedicate or re-dedicate ourselves to?" asks the Rabbi. "Where should we learn from the outside culture, and where should we resist that outside culture? What can we bring to outside culture so that we don't lose it, but in fact we have something to offer it? All of these are live questions for contemporary Jews in North America."

The best way to start is over latkes, made the old fashioned way, from Martha Stewart's recipe.

  • Music Bridge:
    White Soweto
    Artist: Windsurf
    CD: Coastlines (Internasjonal)

Comments

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  • By David Zohar

    From Jerusalem-Israel, 12/23/2008

    I agree with Ms. Golob. As a secular Israeli I wince at the words of Maoz Tzur, that catchy Hanucca song, which celebrates the reinsitution of animal sacrifice on the Temple altar. That is not my Judaism. The Maccabees were indeed religious fundamentalists. Had they failed there would have been no Judaism, no Christianity and no Islam today. Think about it. Without their valour there would have been no Temple for Jesus to visit, no New Testament. No traditions for Muhammad to learn from. World history was changed for all time by these fundamentalists. Was it for the better? Only God (if she exists) knows.

    By David Zohar

    From Jerusalem-Israel, 12/23/2008

    I agree with Ms. Golob. As a secular Israeli I wince at the words of Maoz Tzur, that catchy Hanucca song, which celebrates the reinsitution of animal sacrifice on the Temple altar. That is not my Judaism. The Maccabees were indeed religious fundamentalists. Had they failed there would have been no Judaism, no Christianity and no Islam today. Think about it. Without their valour there would have been no Temple for Jesus to visit, no New Testament. No traditions for Muhammad to learn from. World history was changed for all time by these fundamentalists. Was it for the better? Only God (if she exists) knows.

    By Eliezer Abrahamson

    From Lakewood, NJ, 12/22/2008

    While Sora Golob may have grown up in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, she clearly did NOT grow up in an ultra-Orthodox HOME. TV? Maccabee action figures? Such things are not found in ultra-Orthodox homes in the first place.

    The historical content of this article is quite problematic.

    The article states that "the Maccabees... were fundamentalists. They killed their fellow Jews for the crime of acting Greek." This is an extreme distortion of the history of the period. The Syrian-Greek government, at the instigation of the Hellenized Jews in Israel, had begun a harsh campaign outlawing Jewish practice. The historical accounts are filled with stories of martyrdom from this period; numerous Jews were harshly executed for the crime of observing the Sabbath or circumcising their children. Jews were required, under penalty of death, to participate in idolatrous rituals. Most of these laws were enforced by Jewish officials who "were acting Greek."

    It was in response to this murderous campaign that the "fundamentalist" revolt of the Maccabees took place.

    The celebration of Chanukah is in memory of the miraculous victory over those who would have abolished Judaism. It is not a celebration of the political rise of the Hasmonean kings, despite the historical connection. The fact that some of the later Hasmonean kings (over a period of about 100 years) were corrupt is not "deliberately ignored", it is utterly irrelevant to the celebration of Chanukah.

    While the miracle of the oil is certainly significant (and it is recorded in the Talmud and a number of other ancient sources), Jewish tradition clearly emphasizes the military victory as the primary miracle that we commemorate on Chanukah. The clear proof to this is the "Al HaNisim" prayer, which is recited at least three times each day of Chanukah, which explicitly discusses the miraculous military victory and makes no mention of the miracle of the oil.

    In the future, I would suggest engaging in serious research before publishing a deliberately provocative article such as this.

    By Eliezer Abrahamson

    From Lakewood, NJ, 12/22/2008

    While Sora Golob may have grown up in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, she clearly did NOT grow up in an ultra-Orthodox HOME. TV? Maccabee action figures? Such things are not found in ultra-Orthodox homes in the first place.

    The historical content of this article is quite problematic.

    The article states that "the Maccabees... were fundamentalists. They killed their fellow Jews for the crime of acting Greek." This is an extreme distortion of the history of the period. The Syrian-Greek government, at the instigation of the Hellenized Jews in Israel, had begun a harsh campaign outlawing Jewish practice. The historical accounts are filled with stories of martyrdom from this period; numerous Jews were harshly executed for the crime of observing the Sabbath or circumcising their children. Jews were required, under penalty of death, to participate in idolatrous rituals. Most of these laws were enforced by Jewish officials who "were acting Greek."

    It was in response to this murderous campaign that the "fundamentalist" revolt of the Maccabees took place.

    The celebration of Chanukah is in memory of the miraculous victory over those who would have abolished Judaism. It is not a celebration of the political rise of the Hasmonean kings, despite the historical connection. The fact that some of the later Hasmonean kings (over a period of about 100 years) were corrupt is not "deliberately ignored", it is utterly irrelevant to the celebration of Chanukah.

    While the miracle of the oil is certainly significant (and it is recorded in the Talmud and a number of other ancient sources), Jewish tradition clearly emphasizes the military victory as the primary miracle that we commemorate on Chanukah. The clear proof to this is the "Al HaNisim" prayer, which is recited at least three times each day of Chanukah, which explicitly discusses the miraculous military victory and makes no mention of the miracle of the oil.

    In the future, I would suggest engaging in serious research before publishing a deliberately provocative article such as this.

    By Beth Ramos

    From Celebration, FL, 12/21/2008

    "the Maccabees - the heroes of Hanukkah - were fundamentalists. They killed their fellow Jews for the crime of acting Greek."
    I am neither Jewish nor Greek, but this line stopped me short. We're still doing this, aren't we? Red-States/Blue States, "Real America - Rural America", "Wall Street-Main Street". These are our culture wars. I pray that as we begin the New Year we dedicate ourselves to listening to whomever stands across the divides of our own making.

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