Chanukah is my favorite holiday. I know that involved, intellectual Jews like myself are supposed to declar that Pesach is their favorite or something, but I think that we do Chanukah a disservice these days. Undoubtedly, Chanukah’s proximity to Christmas has made it a more major holiday in recent decades as American Jews have sought to include themselves in winter holiday festivities, but I’d argue that Chanukah’s popularity cannot be reduced to such a disdainable cause.
If Yom Kipur or even Simchat Torah came at this season, we would not have been able to seize upon them and say, “Yes, goyim! We are just like you! We too have an uplifting winter holiday!” Chanukah is a great holiday all on its own and I’m here to tell you why.
Let’s say you’re a little kid and you like presents, it’s a great holiday. It’s also a great holiday for inculcating our children about tz’dakah and the value of education.
Rabbi Abraham P. Bloch has written that “The tradition of giving money (Chanukah gelt) to children is of long standing. The custom had its origin in the seventeenth-century practice of Polish Jewry to give money to their small children for distribution to their teachers. In time, as children demanded their due, money was also given to children to keep for themselves. Teen-age boys soon came in for their share. According toMagen Avraham (18th cent.), it was the custom for poor yeshiva students to visit homes of Jewish benefactors who dispensed Chanukah money (Orach Chaim 670).” [Wikipedia]
Or let’s say you’re a typical American. Aside from the obvious upside of feeling slightly less culturally marginalized during December/Kislev, this is a supremely compelling holiday. Modern American Jews tend to be liberal and, if not urban, metropolitan or suburban. We go to university, we are highly assimilated. Yet, Chanukah is about Jews like us getting their asses handed to them. The hellenized city Jews supported Antiochus and it is a group of bible belt fundamentalists who’ve been living off in the countryside who are the victors in the story of Chanukah. As Americans, we take part in a country with a huge, some would say increasingly imperial army. Yet, Chanukah is about the guerilla defeat of such an army.
Or let’s say you’re into miracles. The Talmud has the inspiring story of a dire olive oil shortage. Without more olive oil, the Temple cannot be properly rededicated, but miraculously a tiny amount lasts over week (!) until more can be scrounged up. It’s a great winter story, right in line with the cross-cultural trend of winter light festivals and as such, Chanukah works.
Or let’s say you’re into history or text study. This holiday has it all! There are three great texts from the Apocrypha, and at least three from the Talmud. Of course, the classic source texts for the holiday are Maccabees I and II, late Jewish texts not included in the Tanach, but included in the Catholic Bible as part of the Apocrypha. These text relate the military struggle of the Maccabees and the story of the restoration of the Temple and of the transformation of a late celebration of Sukot into an annual week-long independence celebration. The Talmud offers us the miracle-driven version of the holiday offered above, a story about Adam’s amazement at the his first winter equinox and his subsequent celebration of festival for that occasion, as well as story of Chanah and her sons who are killed for refusing to worship an idol in the midst of the Hasmonean War. The third book from the Apocrypha is that story of Judith, which leads me to…
Or let’s say you’re a feminist, or just interested in the representaion of women in Jewish texts. There’s the book of Judith, or Yehudit, which simple means Jewess. Yehudit, the title character lives in a town under siege by one of Antiochus’ generals, Holofrenes. Yehudit sneaks into Holofrenes’ tent at night and seduces him. She takes his own sword and removes his head. And one time my mom was Yehudit for Purim or Halloween or something. It’s a good story.
Or let’s say you live anywhere in the diaspora. Here’s a story about the triumph of Jewish culture over an assimilationist force!
Or let’s say you’re Israeli or simply a Zionist who remains in galut. Of course, the ultimate Zionist holiday is Yom Ha’atzma’ut, Independence Day, but Zionism always seeks to justify itself historically. How better to do that than to celebrate an older Jewish independence day?
There’s a final reason why this is a great holiday for our times. Today, hostilities have increased in Gaza. Palestinians and Israelis are dying today in an occupied territory. I don’t pretend to know who is good in this conflict and who is bad. Probably, there is no good guy and no bad guy in Israel today. But Chanukah is the story of Jews under occupation, seeking their right to self-determination. And in Gaza today, some people we like to think of as enemies are doing the same thing. Let’s all just think about that as Chanukah begins to wind down, eight candles on our menorot, with only one more night of light to go.