Hanukkah is almost here and as important as it is to buy gifts and get new recipes for latkes, we must tell the story.
To tell the story, we must know it, and for Hanukkah as with many other stories, there is the myth and perhaps what we might call “the other side of the story.” I am a Jewish educator and I love everything about being Jewish and teaching Jewish except for Hanukkah. This is a challenging holiday! What is the story we tell our children and when do we tell them “the real story”? Here are two very short versions — and believe me, you can find many more versions and interpretations:
The Hanukkah story (the simple version)
A very long time ago, the King of Syria, Antiochus, took charge of Israel. He wanted everyone to be like him, so he told the Jewish people that they could no longer do Jewish things. No more studying Torah, no more celebrating Shabbat, no more praying to God. Antiochus and his army came in and ruined the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. This made Judah Maccabee and his family and friends very angry. They fought back against mean Antiochus and his army. It took a long time, but with some clever moves and help from God, Judah Maccabee’s little army defeated Antiochus’ large army. Judah and the Maccabees went straight away to the Temple to start cleaning it up. When it was all clean, they wanted to light the Ner Tamid, the Eternal Light, to rededicate the Temple.
They could only find one small bottle of holy oil, enough to last one day. It would take many days to make more holy oil. They poured the little bottle of oil in the Ner Tamid and a miracle happened! The oil burned for eight days, which was enough time to make more oil and keep the light burning. They decided to celebrate the miracle that had happened every year, so they declared a holiday — Hanukkah!
The real story for grownups (very short)
The story above is what we tell children — the Maccabees are heroes. They were heroes but in a different way. Judah and the Maccabees were part of the Hashmon Dynasty, a priestly family who were out of power. They were angry at the priests in power because they were trying to live Greek lives — become assimilated Jews. The Maccabees were actually fundamentalists and wanted all Jews to practice Judaism in the “proper” way. The warring began as Jew against Jew. To control things, the Syrians and Antiochus tried to impose a neutral religion on Palestine. They forbade circumcision, Shabbat and Torah study and imposed idol worship. It started as one thing but then truly became a fight for religious freedom. The story of the Maccabees is in the book called the Apocrypha, not a Jewish book. The rabbis wanted to eliminate the story of Hanukkah but all they could do was keep it out of the Jewish books. The Talmud contains a very short passage about the Temple and the holy oil — the story of the miracle.
No matter which story you use (or have heard), the question comes down to — what does this mean to us today? What are the messages that we take from them both for our children and for ourselves as we hear the possibly more disturbing side of the story?
Is it better to just know the children’s version? For our children and grandchildren, let us keep alive all the wonderful parts of the story. However, this year take some time to Google the real story of Hanukkah and challenge yourselves to find the message that works for you. Sorry — I give you no answers — just more questions.
Laura Seymour is the director of Camping Services at the Aaron Family Jewish Community Center.