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What is Hanukah? the Talmud asks, and so may we. In America, Hanukah has become paired with Christmas. On urban blocks and suburban greens, menorahs are lit, one electric candle at a time, until the holiday’s eight days are fulfilled. They share the public space with the Baby Jesus, his parents, the magi, and, often, gentle farm animals who attest to the modest circumstances of the child’s remarkable birth.

The word share imparts the spirit of generosity and friendliness that fills us with pride in ourselves and in our tolerance for difference. But my own experience of this American holiday time moves me to change the subject of the verb: The manger and newly born Christian messiah, his parents, the holy messengers, and the animals shared the public space with the Hanukah lights. Since the days of my childhood, Christmas moved over, so to speak; Hanukah, a minor holiday on the Jewish calendar, grew in proportion until it has become established as a sister festival of light and joy in the midwinter gloom. Now we have an all-inclusive—at least for Christians and Jews–holiday season.

This is not a bad pairing, but it requires explanation from the Jewish sibling. Hanukah, like Christmas, celebrates the miracle of divine intervention in human history. The story is told in First Maccabees, which was written between 90 and 70 BCE, and which recounts events between 175 and 132 BCE. It’s considered by scholars to be a credible historical source.

Though the story was most likely written in Hebrew, the only extant version is in Greek. And Greek—both the language and the culture—was precisely the problem. After Alexander the Great’s conquest, in 334 BCE, of a large swath of the known world, Greek became the English of its time, and Hellenism—Greek culture and thought—blanketed those areas. Some Jews in Alexander’s empire welcomed hellenization, and some did not. First Maccabees represents those who most vociferously did not.

Here’s one example of the writer’s opinion of fraternizing with the Greeks. “[S]ome of the people went eagerly to the king, and he authorized them to introduce the practices of the heathen . . .  they allied themselves with the heathen and became the slaves of wrongdoing (1:13-15).”

Overthrowing the Tyrant

From a 12th-century illuminated manuscript, the Maccabees vs. the troops of Antiochus IV.

The historical-political situation is, as these things always are, complicated, but there are stock players whom we may easily identify. On the Greek side, a persecuting ruler, Antiochus IV, who called himself Epiphanes (“God manifest”), and on the Judean side, a zealous priest of the Jerusalem temple, Mattathias, and his five zealous sons. In 167 BCE, Antiochus issued a decree that marked the first time the practices of Judaism were banned. Among other practices, the decree prohibited sabbath worship and circumcision. In place of proper Temple offerings, it ordered the building of pagan altars and the sacrifice of “hogs and unclean cattle” (1:47). Antiochus’s men stormed the Temple, desecrated the altar, and raged throughout the region, burning incense on pagan altars, tearing up and burning “the book of the Law” (1:56)—the Torah—and, on the 25th of the month of Chislev, First Maccabees reports, marauding men began killing women who circumcised their sons and “hanging the babies around their necks” (1:61).

Mattathias and his sons mounted a revolt. Mattathias died soon after its start, and his son Judah Maccabee “arose in his stead” (3:1) and, in 164 BCE, led his guerrilla fighters on a successful campaign to overthrow Antiochus’s soldiers.

But it’s not the military feat that Hanukah celebrates. Rather, it’s the religious triumph, masterfully described in First Maccabees. Fresh from battle, Judah and his entire army went to the damaged Temple and its “polluted” (4:38) altar; first, they mourned in a prescribed ritual manner, and then, in this order, they appointed proper priests; they cleaned, purified, and rebuilt the altar; they reappointed it with its holy objects; they burned incense, lit lamps, set out ritual loaves of bread; they reinstated the legitimate rites; and, finally, they joyfully celebrated the “rededication” (4:56). The word hanukah means “dedication.”

According to First Maccabees, after an eight-day celebration by Judah Maccabee, his brothers, and “all the congregation of Israel,” it was decreed that “ . . . the days of the rededication of the altar should be observed at their season, every year, for eight days, beginning with the 25th of the month of Chislev, with gladness and joy” (4:59).

The Miracle of the Oil

The shamash candle—it lights the others in the menorah.

This year, Hanukah began at sundown on December 8, and will end at sundown on December 16. In my family, we buy boxes of little multi-colored candles, and, as is the tradition among all Jews, we begin by reciting the required blessing and by lighting the shamash candle, which is the one that sits higher than the others and is used to light the rest, and every night we add another candle.

Jews are instructed to display their menorahs on a windowsill for all the world to see, but ours sit on the counter between the kitchen and dining room. There are three—the one my husband brought to the marriage, the one my son made in preschool, and the one I call the “goddess menorah,” which was made in Mexico and looks like . . . well, a goddess. Always, some of the candles have been left over from the last Hanukah and, in the summer heat, have softened and curled over so that the wax drips faster, makes more of a mess, and by the end of the holiday, the three menorahs are stuck to the tray by hardened pools of colored wax.

As do all Jews from Europe, we stuff ourselves with latkes, which are potato fritters fried in a lot of oil and topped with sour cream or applesauce. Middle Eastern Jews are likely to eat sufganyiot, which are doughnut-like fried breads.

When I was a child, we played with a dreidel, a little wooden–or, this being America, plastic–spinning top. Each of its four sides are inscribed with a Hebrew letter. The letters are an acrostic for a Hebrew phrase that means “A great miracle happened there.” In Israel, a letter was changed so that the acrostic is read as “A great miracle happened here.”

What miracle? It’s encoded in the latkes. The miracle of the oil!

You can read about it in the Talmud, Judaism’s vast compendium of rabbinic legal discussions and stories, compiled and edited from, roughly, 500 to 700 CE. What is Hanukah? the Talmud asks. Herein is its tale:

The Greeks entered the sanctuary and contaminated all of the ritual oil, and when the sanctuary was liberated, only one jar of oil with the high priest’s seal was found. One jar was sufficient for one day, but “a miracle was performed,” and the oil burned for eight days. It’s quite likely that the authors or editors of the Talmud invented this story, but so deeply have the Jewish people absorbed the tale that most do not know it was inaugurated in a relatively late source. A woman I taught in a synagogue adult-education course wept when the source was revealed; she said I’d taken away her childhood. She wanted her “divine intervention” straight from the Divine.

But the story of the story is interesting for what it may say about the ability of Jews to adapt to majority cultures and make our homes within the borders of others. My Talmud teacher Rabbi Judith Hauptman suggests, in an article published last Hanukah in The Jewish Week, that the Talmud’s Hanukah story is a conscious adaptation of an old rabbinic story about a “Western lamp,” whose seventh candle burned longer than the other six and was used by the Temple high priest to light the lamp on the following day.

The Talmud’s authors lived centuries after the destruction of the Temple, in Babylonia (today’s Iraq), where the majority population were Zoroastrian, and in midwinter, Zoroastrians lit “holy fire.” The local rabbis, Rabbi Hauptman posits, revived and recast the lamp story in order “to fight assimilation.” Babylonian Jews were instructed to light menorahs and to place them in windows for all the world to see their “own holy fires.” In other words, shine your own lights.

Hanukah Pride

Colorful dreidels on sale in Machne Yehuda market, Jerusalem.

When I was a child, Christmas occurred right next door to us, in the D’Amicos’ house, in the form of a huge and enchanting Christmas tree, heavily laden with lights that pulsed on and off, tinsel, and red and white candy canes. A winged baby doll angel had alighted on top. Despite the almost entirely Jewish student body and teaching staff of my elementary school, except for “O! Dreidel” our holiday program consisted of Christmas carols. I can still sing Adeste Fideles all the way through in Latin. And every year, my mother took my brother and me to John Wanamaker’s department store in downtown Philadelphia to see the Christmas dioramas and the displays of smiling, staring, doll-like characters that moved via an unseen mechanism.

“Why did you take us?” I asked her. “It was pretty,” she said, stating the obvious.

“And Santa Claus? Why that?”

“Because he was at the end. You walked through Winter Wonderland–or whatever it was called–and directly into the line for Santa Claus. You liked it,” she said. “Once he asked you what you wanted for Christmas, and you told him nothing, because you’d already gotten your Hanukah gifts. You knew exactly who you were.”

She means that I didn’t have Christmas envy, even though, at the time, Hanukah was beginning to swell and take on a competitive dazzle. The more prescient among us may have glimpsed the future, in which Hanukah would link arms with Christmas and, rather than a Christmas break between semesters, we’d have a “winter break,” and rather than the office Christmas party, we’d have the “holiday party,” and homes would have Hanukah bushes, and one could buy an ornament for tree or bush that is a red and green plastic mistletoe with a blue star of David swinging below it.

A recent item in the New York Times Magazine states that Irving Berlin, a Jew and the composer of “White Christmas,” wrote the song because “he wanted to mainstream the holiday to be about snow, not about Christ.” I’m doubtful, as this sentiment seems more opinion than fact; it does not come from Berlin.

However, the song, first sung by Bing Crosby in 1941, surely is an oracular vision of our current holiday season. I would never have foreseen a future with an electric menorah next to the Christ child’s crèche. Nor would I have imagined this scene, reported by a friend’s daughter, who is spending a semester in Moscow: the lighting of an immensely large menorah in Moscow, in front of the Bolshoi Ballet. That is a political statement, especially this year, which marks the 25th anniversary of the movement to allow Soviet Jews to leave the former Soviet Union.

Surely, Hanukah still marks a victory over persecution and majority rule. And surely, Christmas is still about Christ. I like distinctions. I kiss my Christian friends and say, Merry Christmas, and they kiss me and say, Happy Hanukah. That the two can share the public space is, truly, a testament to the wide American embrace.

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  • Toni Myers December 13, 2012 at 5:50 pm

    Thank you, Fran, for this beautiful post. I finished in tears of pleasure, for the story I did not really know and for saving it to read to my grandson Judah when he is a little older. At 5, he loves Hanukah, and also clamors for Santa and a tree. He does both, at home and at Granny’s.