Thoughtful Revolution

Musings on Chanukah


No one knows how much of the Chanukah story is fact. General consensus, scientific and otherwise, has it that the “miracle of the oil” never came to pass. It is established that there were Maccabees; it is established that they were revolutionaries. It is not established that they were heroes. According to modern scholars, the Maccabees’ quest may have been a quest for religious orthodoxy and not freedom from Syrian rule, a conflict not between liberation and oppression but between — as the author of the Second Book of Maccabees himself writes — “Judaism” and “Hellenism.” The brunt of the Maccabees’ force was initially directed at assimilated Jewish “collaborators,” and the bigoted, grossly incompetent Antiochus became the story’s centerpiece villain only when he stepped in too far on the side of the Hellenists, prohibiting Jewish practices in a chess move that would backfire on his head for all time. After the guerrilla war was waged in full force, the Syrian-backed Hellenists defeated, and the brief period of Hasmonean rule began, many of the victorious Maccabees sought imperialist campaigns of their own. Judah Maccabee, in particular, hoped to conquer lands with sizeable Jewish populations and convert the rest of their inhabitants. History is nothing but an amalgam of pop culture and oral tradition, the detritus of fact and the gems of self-aggrandizement, a collection of myths propped up on the discovery of a decomposing tibia or a hairpin someone threw away. It changes with the winds and the generations only peripherally; at its core it is oddly persistent. We think we are above mythology, and yet we cling to our creation myths with a shared and righteous fervor. We do not know our ancestors.


On Chanukah we fry things. Latkes and sufganiyot fill Ashkenazi skillets, and American preschools from Augusta to Los Angeles. Other traditions bring zucchini fritters, beef and leek patties, ricotta-stuffed pancakes, fried dough balls soaked in milk and rosewater, stuffed peppers, borekas, kibbeh, donuts stuffed with dulce de leche. There is no one smell that screams Chanukah across the world; there is no one taste, no one texture. The prayers hit our ears differently in Tel Aviv and Buenos Aires — the melodies vastly diverge, and the accents each lend the words their own unique tinge. The only universal earthy appeal we have on the night of Chanukah is the most mundane, isolated in a corner of the kitchen, consigned to what has traditionally been the women’s realm: the sound of newly poured oil crackling on the griddle.


Chanukah is a minor holiday in the Jewish canon. It was elevated to its current status mostly because of its proximity to Christmas.

When I was in elementary school, no one asked anyone what faith they practiced. Instead, the question was, “do you celebrate Christmas, or Chanukah?”


I always try to spell Chanukah C-h-a-n-u-k-a-h. The other spellings don’t quite cut it for me; I’ve never bought the substitution of H for Ch, the verbal assimilation of a Hebrew word. And the double K’s in the alternate spellings overstate that consonant’s power: the K should pale in comparison to the first grand guttural onslaught of the Ch, or the booming depth of the first A. It is the first syllable — the Cha — that rings out like a shofar, that calls a people to attention; to weaken its pronunciation is to weaken its power, and to sublimate it beneath the afterthought of the “kah” is to demean it entirely. (I also try to pronounce “latke” as “lat-kuh” instead of “lat-key,” but maybe that’s just me.)


Sometimes I like to let my fingers close to the Chanukah flames, even singeing the calluses on the tips of my fingers, just to see what it feels like. My mother sets down foil so that the mantelpiece will not stain beneath the chanukiyot. My parents ask me not to lean over the candles — my hair will catch a spark and burn. I play with tiny drops of hot wax, letting them adhere to my hand, both for the color and for the stinging, oddly comfortable warmth.


In our most basic traditions, there are two persistent icons: food and fire. On a primal level it makes sense — Judaism stems from a period in the unimaginable past, a period where the dearth of light could be as frightening as starvation, could be explained as the wrath of an angry God. The beginning of our day of rest is signified by the lighting of candles, and so is the end. Our Chanukiyot are placed in our windows, fulfilling a commandment to share the beams of light with the world. Even our Passover seders, in the sunny peak of spring, begin with candles and prayers. And of course, in the first few centuries, there were the ultimate lights: the altar flames of animal sacrifices, sending not just their aroma but their illumination up to the heavens.

And yet, these little self-contained fires nestle themselves in the back of their minds, long since replaced by fires that rage and consume despite our best efforts. When I think of fire in the Jewish iconography my mind jumps not to the Shabbat table but to the Eleh Ezkerah, the Yom Kippur martyrology, where malicious flames are omnipresent. Earlier in the service we repeat the line “And who by fire;” in the Eleh Ezkerah, we are given an all-too-literal answer to a rhetorical question. Rabbi Akiva and his students, allegedly burned by Roman imperialists, wrapped in the Torah scrolls they studied. The victims of the Inquisition and of other European heretic-hunts, set afire and forced to suffer for two or more hours at the stake. Whole villages razed by soldiers in the employ of the czar, fires that struck seemingly at random and with devastating force. And, most resonant in modern memory, the countless victims of the Holocaust. Synagogues have burned, and shops, and private homes. Fire is inescapable and terrifying, and now that electric lights fill our homes and electric stoves heat our food it rarely has the redeeming value of being needed. Somehow, still, it is lovely to look at — but it is a new sort of loveliness, the sort of loveliness that moves you to sobs in silent moments, a light that is sad and dangerous and painful but still has a way of sending a shiver of beauty rippling through a dark room.


Chanukah music is joyous and rowdy. With the exception of the venerable chestnut Maoz Tzur and a handful of children’s songs, it does not recant old tales, or even pray. Even its most ethereal minor-key ballads revel in earthy pleasures: the pleasures of bright lights, and good food, and drink, and games, and family, even the snow lit up by the glow of the chanukiyah. In the spring and summer and fall, we reflect; in the winter, we dance. We humans have always staved off early nights and bone-chilling cold by retreating to our most visceral comforts — and even with our central heating systems and constant light, somehow, we still continue.


I do not receive lavish presents for Chanukah. I have never gotten an iPod, or a digital camera, or a glistening new cellphone. I have always been given the gift of books.


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