Eight Nights of Confusion

Reading Time: 5 minutes

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By Lynne Wang

*Minor spoilers for Mad Men follow.*

The Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes, having invaded Palestine, attempted to wipe out the culture of the indigenous Israelites in 167 BCE. He outlawed traditional sacrifice and the observance of Shabbat, installing idols and sacrificing pigs—the archetypal unkosher animal—in their Temple. The Israelites, however, were having none of this, so they rose up against the Seleucid Empire under the leadership of Judah Maccabee, a leader whose bravery was matched only by his keen military skill. Thanks to Judah’s leadership, they managed to throw off Antiochus’s Hellenistic shackles and preserve Jewish (or at least proto-Jewish) culture against the forces of imperialism.

So goes the narrative of the Books of Maccabees, and while modern historians largely view the Maccabean Revolt as more of a civil war with Seleucid intervention than an anti-Seleucid revolt, that is the version of events that has remained dominant in the Jewish conscience: the Maccabean Revolt as a victory of Jewish uniqueness over assimilationism.

Every year near mid-December, Jews around the world celebrate this triumph over assimilationism by participating fervently in the American “holiday season,” complete with Chanukkah songs at annual school holiday concerts right alongside “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and unwrapping presents à la Christmas.

Herein lies the central contradiction of Chanukkah as it exists today: the holiday centered around our victory over the people who tried to make us assimilate has turned into a performance of Christmas. Modern-day Jews, then, have a lot to reconcile. How do we justify the opening of presents―a custom which has its roots in Old World Jewish practice, but whose form today is very much a Christmas imitation―as we tell the story of the Maccabees and their fight to keep Judaism unique?

To be clear, the issue here is not that Chanukkah has changed; it’s the nature of cultural practices that’s changed, and that’s fine. Nor is there anything inherently wrong with gifts. The issue is that the most significant aspect of modern-day Chanukkah practice is a direct attempt to mimic Christmas. That might not be a bad thing, but it would seem to run against Chanukkah’s strongly anti-assimilationist core.

One way we could do it is by questioning the foundations of the holiday and in particular the Maccabees, altogether. The Maccabees were extremist zealots. They killed almost as many Jews whom they deemed too Hellenistic as Seleucid soldiers, and Maccabees One describes them going around the land of Israel and circumcising all the babies they could find. (To be clear, the problem here is not the circumcision in itself. Circumcising one’s own baby is fine. Going around and circumcising others’ babies en masse is absolutely not.) Today, we might describe such fighters in the same general region of the world as terrorists. And after winning the war, they established a hereditary monarchy, which was against Jewish[1] law at the time. The rabbis invented the famous miracle of the oil so they’d have a reason aside from the Maccabees to celebrate Chanukkah.

That the Maccabees broke Jewish law to seize power in the wake of their victory is important even if one doesn’t particularly care about Jewish law in itself.[2] Jewish law, like all laws, is a representation of Jewish morals. The Maccabees, having just fought a war ostensibly to preserve Jewish culture, immediately uprooted it. And their dynasty, the Hasmonean dynasty, was full of kings with names like John Hyrcanus and Aristobulus―names that, if they were any more Greek, would be wrestling naked while smeared with body oil. Chanukkah can be a valuable opportunity to both challenge what are ostensibly the fundamental ideas of the holiday―“Were they right to fight violently against assimilation or is what we’re doing here fine?”―and discuss how ambitious people can take advantage of cultural anxiety to seize power and elevate themselves.

But, though we should absolutely ask those questions, it would be a big mistake to make Chanukkah into a contrarian anti-Maccabee rampage. Questioning the values and revered figures of one’s culture is important, but there’s little value in just tearing them down.

Instead, Chanukkah can be a constructive and nuanced holiday. Jewish families should use Chanukkah not to elevate or condemn the Maccabees or their ideas, but as a way to start conversations about the questions Chanukkah raises, namely: Do we compromise our Judaism with Chanukkah gift-giving?

These questions have resonance far beyond Chanukkah, particularly for diaspora Jews. For Jews in America, assimilation was a way to be safe and to be able to exist in society. The television drama “Mad Men,” which takes place during the 1960s, does a good job of depicting the progression of Jews in American society,[3] from Rachel Menken, who in the first episode is an Other whom the series’ characters treat with belittlement and distance, to Michael Ginsberg, whose wry, cynical, Jon Stewart-esque personality is a welcome presence in the offices of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. But Ginsburg doesn’t just achieve this status out of nowhere; his legal first name is Moshe, and he was born in a Nazi concentration camp.

Ginsburg, and Jews in America generally, would not have achieved the relatively accepted status Jews have today were it not for their assimilatory efforts, and if there’s one lesson of Jewish history, it’s that status is a very precious thing indeed. But Chanukkah can provide an opportunity for Jews to self-reflect and ask ourselves where the line is between assimilation and cultural self-destruction.

I do not know what a discussion-based Chanukkah would look like for every Jewish family; it is neither my place nor my wish to dictate the practices of the global Jewish community. But for me and my family, it looks like talking―a word which here means “arguing”―about the place of the Maccabees at dinner and at the Chanukkiah and ultimately deciding to replace giving presents on Chanukkah with giving presents on Purim, another Jewish holiday—which we plan to begin doing next year.

At Stuyvesant, it means making a Chanukah decoration for my genetics class’s holiday decoration assignment and badly changing the lyrics of “All I Want for Christmas is You” at the Big Sib-Little Sib dance, which I definitely did not sneak into.

But at the end of the day, what I really care about is that other Jews recognize and talk about the contradiction in Chanukkah—not how they put that into practice. The contradiction need not ruin the holiday―Jews are no stranger to contradiction and irony, and we can embrace it. But the critically aware practice of Judaism, no matter how it manifests itself, is something which I care greatly about.


[1] Note: The phrase “Jewish” is often avoided by historians when discussing this time period because the time period precedes the Roman province of Judea, whence “Judaism.”

[2] The author would like to note that it is his unbiased opinion that Jewish law is pretty cool, and you may quote him on that.

[3] The wonderful Amazon Prime series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is another, funnier depiction of Jews in midcentury America and I would be remiss not to mention it.