“And now, Matthew will come up and tell us about Chanukah,” Miss Shultz said. “It’s the Jewish Christmas.”
I froze in my chair, looking straight ahead at my teacher’s expectant smile. I felt the eyes of my second-grade classmates boring into me. It was one of those moments that every eight-year-old dreads: being called out as something different, or exceptional. I was the only Jewish kid in my grade and, apart from my brother and Tim Naftali a few years ahead of me, that was it for the Jews at Dorset School or, for that matter, the sleepy town of Baie d’Urfé at the western end of the Island of Montreal.
Looking back, I understand that Miss Shultz was doing her best. She must have been in her early-20s at the time, a newly-minted teacher in tan leather boots, a green turtleneck, and long iron-pressed hair. I don’t think it was her fault, exactly; this was the 1970s, and she doubtless wanted to make her classroom an inclusive space for everyone, regardless of their religious background. I was that “regardless” in a class full of Anglicans and Presbyterians, however, and Miss Schultz treated me like it. But I am inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt.
My school was part of the Lakeshore School Board, one of the two Protestant school boards in the Montreal area at the time. Until 1998, all public schools in Quebec were either Protestant or Catholic – there was no public secular or Jewish option – and most Jewish families sent their children to the former. That meant that it was perfectly appropriate for Miss Shultz, with her hippie hair and acoustic guitar, to lead the class in a hymn every morning after “O Canada” and “God Save the Queen.”
Each day, she would ask a student to come to the front of the class to pick a hymn from a binder, and we’d launch into song. I learned soon enough to always pick the one about the falling sparrow when it was my turn. There was God in the song, but no Jesus, so I didn’t feel so compromised when I would stand there, next to her desk, humming along and trying not to look too conspicuous.
So, when Miss Shultz, in an expression of her deeply-held “I Want to Teach the World to Sing in Perfect Harmony” 1970s liberal idealism, called on me to explain Jewish Christmas to my 29 Christian classmates, I felt set apart, singled out, exposed like a gazelle in an episode of Wild Kingdom.
It didn’t help that we had lit the last Chanukah candle on December 8 that year. Miss Shultz seemed to have no idea that, because we observe the holiday according to the Jewish lunar calendar, the dates tend to move around the solar year; sometimes it starts in late November, sometimes in early January. Yet, the odds are pretty good that the eight-day celebration will map over the festival of the Christian God’s birth in most years, and it is that association that has elevated Chanukah to a level of importance that it does not actually possess in Jewish observance – it became “Jewish Christmas.”
That, along with the childhood trauma of explaining the holiday to a room full of Anglicans and Presbyterians two weeks after it ended, was one of the reasons for my lifetime of conflicted emotions about the Festival of Lights. I remember Rabbi Treister explaining the Jewish liturgical year to my Hebrew School class at Temple Rodeph Shalom, and pointing out the differences between the High Holy Days of the autumn, the fast days like Tisha b’Av, the major festivals like Pesach and… lesser ones like Chanukah.
“Chanukah is a minor festival,” he said. “It is a fun time, and the food is great, but it is not scriptural. It is really a holiday for the kids.”
Rabbi Treister was right, of course; there is no mention of Chanukah in any of the books of the Tanakh. Even Purim, a holiday often called “Jewish Halloween,” and also “for the kids,” draws on the Book of Esther. The Hebrew Book of Maccabees, which tells the story that Chanukah commemorates, is not a part of our canon – though, ironically, the Catholic Church saw fit to include it in its Apocryphal books – so it is not a part of our liturgy. Consequently, it is the only holiday that we celebrate exclusively at home, and not in shul, before the Ark, and reading from our sacred books. We mark Chanukah at home, eating latkes and sufganiyot, singing songs around the chanukiah (the Chanukah menorah) with our families.
It is one of the few holidays, in fact, that is neither an obligation commanded by God, nor which involves explicit, miraculous, divine intervention (with the exception of the miracle of the oil). Chanukah celebrates a military victory, an act of liberation from our oppressors that was not accomplished on our behalf by the ruler of the universe, but by ourselves – the Jews, collectively, led by the Maccabees, a heroic band of brothers.
I tried to explain the story, as best I could, as it had been told to me by my father: Sometime around 170 BCE, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, newly ascended to the throne of the Seleucid Empire, the Greek successor state to Alexander the Great’s empire in the Middle East, marched into Judea and demanded that the Jews worship him as a god. The Jews had not been politically independent for more than four centuries at that point, but had maintained a certain level of local cultural autonomy, ruled by the Kohanim (the hereditary priesthood) under Persian, Macedonian, and now Seleucid Greek hegemony.
The High Priests at the Temple in Jerusalem directed Jewish life through the Jewish laws, rituals, and holidays, and had an understanding with the various successive overlords that they would be left alone if they didn’t cause any trouble. At the same time, it was hard to ignore the awesome cultural weight of Greek power and, over time, they adopted Hellenistic practices and ideas. Jerusalem became a local Hellenistic metropolis and, when Antiochus announced his godhood – and the subsequent obligation for all his subjects to worship him as such – the High Priest, who had the very goyische name of Menelaus (Μενέλαος) kind of shrugged and said “OK.”
That made sense in assimilated upper-class circles in cosmopolitan Jerusalem but it didn’t sit well among the vast majority of Jews, for whom “thou shalt have no other god before Me” was an absolute, non-negotiable rule. It is the second of the Ten Commandments, and the very essence of the Sh’ma Yisrael, the holiest of all Jewish prayers: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord is One!”
Not surprisingly, Menelaus’s policy was extremely unpopular in the towns and villages of rural Judea, where the Hellenized upper-classes had relatively little influence. In Modi’in, one such town about 20 miles outside of Jerusalem, my namesake, a local Kohen named Matitiyahu ben Yohanan, was having none of it; worshipping a Greek ruler as a god was a step too far. According to legend, when a Greek official demanded that Matitiyahu make a sacrifice to the god Antiochus Epiphanes, the Kohen drew his sword, killed a pair of Jews who had complied, and for good measure dispatched the Greek official.
A rebellion was on, and Matitiyahu’s sons Judah, Eleazar, Simon, Yohanan, and Jonathan launched a war of liberation. They were strapping, powerful men of the hills; Judah’s nickname was “The Hammer” – ha-Makabi in Hebrew – and collectively, they became known as the Maccabees. Over the next seven years, the Jewish rebels fought a bitter guerilla war against the most powerful empire in the Eastern Mediterranean that cost the lives Judah, Eleazar, and Yohanan. But in 160 BCE, the victorious Maccabean army finally defeated the Greeks, secured Judea’s independence, and marched triumphantly into Jerusalem.
The story goes that they found that the Temple had been desecrated by the Greeks and their Hellenized allies. Jonathan and Simon who, after all, were hereditary Kohanim, set about purifying the Holy of Holies but they found only one small sealed and uncontaminated container of oil – only enough to light the Temple lamp for one day. Miraculously, the lamp burned bright for the eight days it took to procure more.
That is the story that I told, in a greatly abridged form, to my second-grade classmates. Chanukah is important, indeed a holiday at all, because of this story. There have been many stories of Jewish heroism, but the Maccabean Rebellion, unlike the rebellions of 70 CE and 132-135 CE, was the one that we won. It is a rare story of Jewish resistance that has a happy ending, rather than concluding with the Romans publicly torturing the great Talmudic scholar Rabbi Akiva to death in 135 CE.
Always a fun time, Chanukah became increasingly important throughout the 19th and 20th centuries not just due to its proximity to our Gentile neighbors’ big winter festival, but as a beacon of hope to Jews facing incessant antisemitism, pogroms, and the horrific tide of genocidal violence. The story of the Maccabees, of that time when we stood up and won, was an unquantifiable comfort to the survivors of Odessa, Kiev, and Kishinev. For the inmates of the Warsaw Ghetto, celebrating Chanukah in December 1940 was both an act of defiance and an expression of profound hope.
“Hanukkah parties were held in nearly every courtyard, even in rooms which face the street; the blinds were drawn, and that was sufficient,” Chaim Kaplan wrote in his diary. “How much joy, how much of a feeling of national kinship there was in these Hanukkah parties! After sixteen months of Nazi occupation, we came to life again.”
Our history has endowed the tradition of lighting the Chanukiah in a window facing the street with a special significance, and perhaps helps to explain why this holiday, without scriptural sources or liturgical weight, has become so crucial to Jewish life since the Holocaust. Simply being able to light those candles, for eight consecutive nights, for everyone to see, is an act of defiance and resistance. We are still here; neither Hitler nor Antiochus destroyed us!
Yet, for all of that, as I grew older, I began to have doubts about Chanukah and my enjoyment of the holiday began to wane. As I became increasingly committed to pacifism, the traditional celebration of military valor lost its appeal. Besides, hadn’t Matitiyahu murdered two of his fellow Jews in cold blood? I understood that they had performed an act of apostasy and violated one of the foundational tenets of our law, but they were afraid and, one might suspect, insincere in their idolatry – shouldn’t that have counted for something? My namesake began to seem more like a religious fanatic than a hero.
I was troubled by the way that the Maccabees had been appropriated by the Zionist movement. Maccabiah Games have been held since 1932 as a kind of Zionist Olympics. When I was a kid at summer camp, we had our own Maccabiah, with each team representing a region of Israel, and there was much waving of the Degel Yisrael. More disturbing still was the way that the mystique of the Maccabees has been integrated into the Zionist death cult centered on the legend of the mass murder-suicide at Masada.
Moreover, I began to realize that the traditional story did not tell the whole story of either the Maccabees, or of our people, in the mid-second century BCE Judea. As I trained, throughout college and graduate school, to become a historian, I learned that history is very messy, and that national myths and foundation narratives invariably conceal more than they tell. And the story of Chanukah, which gave so much hope and joy to Jews throughout the darkest times of our history, vastly simplified the history beyond all recognition.
By ending the narrative with the recapture of Jerusalem and the rededication of the Temple, for example, we have been able to blissfully ignore all that came after. For one thing, the Maccabees did not actually win Judea’s independence from the Seleucid Greeks. Instead, Jonathan – a hereditary Kohen – installed himself as the High Priest and defacto ruler in Jerusalem under nominal Greek suzerainty, while power struggles tore the Seleucid empire apart. It was only 20 years after the miracle of the lights that, upon becoming the High Priest himself, Jonathan’s brother Simon was proclaimed the monarch of Judea, founding the Hasmonean dynasty.
For the next century, the Hasmonean kings ruled a theocracy that combined, for the only time in Jewish history, both the monarchy and the priesthood. And their rule was just as chaotic and corrupt as anything that came before. The court of the Hasmonean kings was a snake pit of intrigues that would make a Game of Thrones fan blush, and they piled one bad decision upon another. King John Hyrcanus, flush with imperial ambitions, forcibly converted the neighboring Idumean people around 125 BCE. When the Hasmoneans’ theocratic monarchy fizzled out in the face of Parthian pressure less than a century later, the Idumean leader – never terribly attached to Judaism, and with a chip on his shoulder – got Rome, the up-and-coming regional power, to back a coup d’état and make him king. His name was Herod the Great.
Perhaps the greatest irony or, more accurately, inconsistency in the subsequent story of the Maccabees is that the Hasmoneans were, if anything, more Hellenized than the Judean leadership they had condemned for giving in to the Seleucids. The Judean king who Herod executed in order to take his throne was named Antigonus (Ἀντίγονος); his father had been Aristobulus (Ἀριστόβουλος).
None of this made sense to me. After all, how could the Maccabees have gone from being a band of heroes defending Judaism and the Jewish way of life from the predations of Hellenistic corruption, who threw off the hated yoke of Greek oppression, to become a corrupt, incompetent, thoroughly Hellenized, Hellenophilic theocracy?
The answer is that the story of Chanukah almost certainly did not happen the way we tell it. Rather than a heroic war of liberation against a foreign oppressor, it was power-struggle within the Temple leadership. In the middle of the second century BCE Judea, though firmly under Seleucid control, found itself caught in the middle of that empire’s rivalry with Ptolemaic Egypt, also a successor-state to Alexander the Great’s empire and the other regional superpower.
Antiochus Epiphanes had interfered in the Egyptian succession, installing his own Pharaoh in Memphis. When Ptolemy VIII Physcon overthrew the Seleucid puppet, he began campaign to destabilize Antiochus’s power. He was particularly interested in Judea, which was strategically located at the nexus of a number of important trade routes in the Eastern Mediterranean, and he intervened in the toxic politics and intrigues of the priesthood in Jerusalem. Antiochus’s plan to impose his worship on the Jews was, most likely, an effort to shore up support in Judea and undermine Egyptian efforts. And though this was a horrifying affront to Jewish belief, that is not the only reason why Matitiyahu led his sons and supporters in revolt; he had also picked the side of the pro-Egypt faction in Jerusalem.
If you stand back from myths and legends, you find that history is not only messy; it is also often very dirty, and your mythic heroes are always disappointing. Abraham Lincoln, the “Great Emancipator” did say, in 1858, “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so. I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and the black races.” The feminist and social reformer Margaret Sanger was, indeed, a eugenicist and racist. The leaders of the American Revolution, who spoke so eloquently of liberty, were mostly slave owners.
Yet, this tells us only that humans, and every figure that populates our historical narratives, are invariably flawed and, as flawed as they were, they accomplished great things. Lincoln did fight a war that, by 1863, had become a struggle to end slavery. Sanger did found the organization that would become Planned Parenthood, and laid the foundation for what we now know as reproductive rights. And the leaders of the American Revolution – all of them white, wealthy men – did create a country based on principles of freedom and equality, even though they, and their new country, were as likely to honor those principles in their breach.
History is not simply a coherent assemblage of immutable, objective facts that we are obliged to accept without comment or intervention. The late Hayden White invited the readers and writers of history to meet the past as a fluid and protean space, where we find innumerable narratives, negotiate what was said and done, or unsaid and undone, and “encounter a veritable chaos of events already constituted,” out of which we construct a story. Thus, history is a choice; it is a voyage where we chart our way from one coordinate to the other, and not the sea on which we sail, nor even the wind that propels us forward.
We cannot ignore Lincoln’s racism, Jefferson’s hypocrisy, or the Maccabees’ cynical motivations – nor should we – but we can choose to take lessons from their actions, and understand how their achievements, more than their shortcomings, advanced history. Jefferson might not have believed that all men are created equal but, having made that idea the foundation of American freedom, it is a promise that we must now keep. Lincoln might have been just another compromised 19th century white man, but his image will forever been the backdrop for the ongoing struggle for civil rights.
It was those thoughts that brought me back to Chanukah. There is no single way to hear, or to tell the story of the Maccabean revolt, or of the miracle of the lights. As I mumbled uncomfortably in Miss Shultz’s class decades ago, “it’s complicated.” And it should be.
The Maccabees might not have restored full Judean independence; they might have been just another group in a Judean power struggle between equally complicit, Hellenized factions; and things might not ultimately have turned out the way the Chanukah story says they did… But I am under no obligation to embrace, or even listen to the bellicose narratives of militant Zionists.
I can tell the story in my own way, as a narrative of how our people came together to stand against those who would destroy us and defeat those among us who would collaborate with them; to liberate the precincts of the Temple, to renew the Holy of Holies; to rededicate ourselves to tzedek (justice) and chesed (kindness and decency) as the Law commands us.
At the end of the day it is the story itself, no so much what is says, that is important. This is the story that gave light in those dark days in the Warsaw Ghetto, that inspired hope when there was so little to hope for. It is the story we tell when we light the candles each night for eight nights, and allow them to shine in the window for the whole world to see: We are still here.