Everyday life in an extraordinary place.

Sunday, September 21, 2008


This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 23 December 2000

Friends in America have asked me if Chanukah is as important a Jewish holiday as Christmas is to Christians. I'm not surprised that people may have that perception; Chanukah is very much a big deal in the United States. But that is only owing to its proximity to Christmas. It wasn't until I moved to Israel that I learned that Chanukah is, in fact, probably the least important holiday in the Jewish calendar. It is also the only ancient holiday not mentioned in the Torah (Pentateuch).

Chanukah is basically about fighting assimilation and oppression. When King Antiochus IV took over the Syrian territories of the Greek Empire in 175 B.C.E. (Before the Common Era, which is how Jews refer to the time before Jesus was born) he also became the ruler of what is now Israel. Antiochus campaigned to force Greek culture and ideals on all of the varied peoples under his rule. One such ideal was the worship of pagan gods. A family from the town of Modi'in (north of Jerusalem) formed a band of like-minded Jews, called themselves the Maccabees, and rebelled against Antiochus and his mighty army. Miraculously, they won.

Okay, so Chanukah is a story about fighting oppression. Then why do Jews light a special menorah (which is basically a generic term for a candelabrum) called a chanukiah for eight nights? The answer to that is one of those charming tales that steadfastly survive, no matter how unlikely it seems that they could be true.

Once the Maccabees defeated Antiochus and his army, they headed to Jerusalem and the Holy Temple to make an offering to God. There they discovered that the Greeks had defiled and destroyed the holy temple, up to and including the special oil used to keep the ritual menorah there alight 24 hours a day. After careful searching, the Maccabees, so the story goes, found a single jar of purified oil, enough to keep the menorah alight for only one day. They used it, knowing that it would take another eight days to obtain more oil. Another miracle occurred, and that one jar of oil burned for eight full days, long enough for a fresh supply to arrive and ensure that the menorah remain constantly lit.

Some people today light chanukiot (that's the plural of chanukiah) that use oil, but most have succumbed to the modern convenience of brightly colored candles. Oil still finds its way into the festivities, however, as the traditional foods of Chanukah are potato pancakes (called latkes in Yiddish, levivot in Hebrew), and jelly doughnuts (soofganiyot in Hebrew), both of which are fried in oil. The spinning top (dreidle in Yiddish, sevivon in Hebrew) game associated with Chanukah was one supposedly used by Hebrew children to fool the Greek soldiers into thinking they had abandoned their study of Torah in favor of gambling. The Hebrew letters on the four sides of the dreidle stand for the first letters of four words, which translate to "a great miracle happened there." Of course, here in Israel one of the letters is different, as the saying is "a great miracle happened here." Israeli kids are always fascinated by the American dreidles I show them.

As I mentioned in the beginning, Chanukah is really not a big deal here. Before the holiday younger children tend to have special lessons on the holiday. Aside from lighting the candles, eating the festive foods, and perhaps getting a bit of "d'may Chanukah" - pocket money - on the first night of the holiday, there are only a few special occurrences of note. First and foremost to the children, of course, is the week's vacation from school. Also, preschools and elementary schools usually host parties which tend to include some kind of singing and dancing performed by the children. Many special concerts and live shows for children premiere during the week of Chanukah, as well.

Something that happened to a friend of mine in America got me thinking about Chanukah and the fight against assimilation. Her first grader received a worksheet in school, with various scenes depicting the steps of selecting, bringing home, and decorating a Christmas tree. The class was supposed to number the pictures in their proper order. My friend's child, however, is Jewish, and had never had a Christmas tree. She tried to guess the proper sequence, but ended up bringing home a paper with a very low score. My friend was furious at the teacher's assumption that every child in the class shared this experience and would be able to complete the worksheet properly.

My daughter routinely brings home such worksheets, but they are, of course, concerned with Jewish holidays. How, I wondered, would a Muslim or Christian child in her school feel about getting such an assignment? Now, the likelilhood of there even being any Christian or Muslim children in Liat's school is slim; much lower than that of finding Jewish kids in the average public school in America. Still, I would imagine that being in that position must be extremely uncomfortable. Being in the minority can make one feel unimportant, excluded, even derided.

These days, we don't have to worry too much about forced religious conversion. Still, an unknowing oppression can be, in its own way, as damaging as one perpetuated by force.

(c) Amy Samin

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