In my column for The Week, I discuss the real meaning of Hanukkah:
Eight days of festivities because ancient Jews discovered a cruse of unusually long-lasting oil? That’s supposed to rank as a miracle? Why not take a long weekend in August because the prophet Isaiah saved 15 percent on his car insurance?
Still, of all the Jewish holidays, Hanukkah may be the one with the most contemporary resonance. It tells a story of conflict over assimilation — of the struggle for Jewish national independence — and of the challenges faced by a Jewish state surrounded by enemies and supported by the world’s greatest military power. But to rediscover that highly relevant message, you have to scrape away a lot of potato-flavored schmaltz. Christmas is a holiday whose meaning has been superimposed over the centuries, with Nordic ritual (Yule logs, Druidic evergreen trees) overlaid upon the Roman holiday of Saturnalia. Hanukkah, by contrast, is a holiday whose meaning has been ripped away, as generations of rabbis sought to contain and suppress a story too upsetting and dangerous to fit conveniently into later Jewish tradition and practice.
More than a century before Christ, the little territory that is now Israel was subject to a powerful neighbor, an empire stretching from what is now Syria deep toward what is now Afghanistan. This empire was ruled by the descendants of one of the generals of Alexander the Great. In an effort to integrate their sprawling domain, these rulers demanded that the Jews practice some elements of Greek cults in their Temple worship.
These demands triggered internecine conflict among the Jews. Some thought it wise to obey. Some even thought the Jews had something to learn from their Greek-speaking neighbors. Others militantly rejected Greek customs and foreign rule. Disagreement led to assassination, repression, civil war, and ultimately outright rebellion. The rebels prevailed. The family that led the rebellion was nicknamed the Maccabees, and Hanukkah was the Independence Day of the kingdom they founded.