Happy Hanukkah! Or Chanukkah, or Hannukah, depending on how you choose to transliterate.
I feel that it is necessary to address Howard Jacobson’s opinion piece in the New York Times, which am only able to describe as grumpy–-he essentially tries to argue against Hanukkah. And so, as a lover of the holiday, I am going to defend it on all accounts.
Jacobson starts out by saying that the Hanukkah story, when compared with those of other Jewish holidays, is severely lacking–that Jews love Passover and Purim because of their great stories, but that no one today really cares about the Hasmoneans. I’m not really sure how to address the lack of interest in Hasmoneans, as it’s a very personal opinion (I’ve never found the name to be a deterrent), but I would like to say that when I was a little girl, the story of Hanukkah was one of the favorites among myself and all of my friends, just as much as, if not more than, the stories of other holidays.
The author continues to say that the story of Hanukkah is simply not very believable. Here’s my problem with that: if the idea of defeating the Syrian-Greeks seems a little far-fetched, it certainly does not even compare to dubiousness of splitting of an entire sea. The story of the Hasmoneans is, simply, the story of guerrilla warfare–of a small group of people strategically attacking and wearing down a large army. We see it today all the time, and it has proved to be a potent strategy. Whether or not it actually happened is up for speculation, but I think it certainly could be seen as believable.
The author (and this is where he gets to me the most) says that Hanukkah songs just don’t compare to Christmas songs. Now, I take issue with this for many reasons. First, Hanukkah songs are great; I look forward to hearing my school’s A Capella group sing Hanukkah songs every year. I have so many happy memories of singing “Hanukkah, Oh Hannukah” and “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel,” even if they aren’t “musically complex,” as he says. (Now, I do find “Maoz Tzur” to be unnecessarily gruesome and violent, and so often I choose not to sing it, but that’s another story.) Second, has he ever even heard of Adam Sandler’s “Hanukkah Song”?
Finally, the author says that Hanukkah isn’t good enough because it simply is out-shined by Christmas–Jewish kids don’t get presents and are stuck with dreidels, and we have no Christmas trees or lights. I know that, especially at a young age, some Jewish kids feel that they’re missing out by not having Christmas. But personally I’ve come to appreciate how nice it is not have to deal with Christmas shopping and its expenses, mad rushes, and stress. I think it’s nice to not have to be a part of what Christmas has become, meaning a very much commercial holiday. Exactly for the reason that the author hates on Hanukkah is why I love Hanukkah: it’s a beautiful winter holiday, unique from Christmas in that it has its own story and meaning but close enough to it on the calendar that Jews don’t feel left out from winter fun. Presents are nice, and I was always glad to receive a few small ones as a kid, but I’m glad that presents aren’t the focus of Hanukkah (not that they have to be of Christmas, either).
The reason that I think Hanukkah has become such a popular holiday today (besides the fact that it’s near Christmas) is because Jews all around the world can relate to the fear of destruction, and the pure joy that would come at escaping it. As Rabbi Avi Shafran writes in a letter responding to this piece, “as the special prayer we recite on Hanukkah puts it, we thank God for handing ‘the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few.’” Survivors of the Holocaust are still alive today, and Iran is a powerful threat to Israel, the homeland of the Jewish people–memory of near-destruction is very much alive. Even though the author writes off its modern meaning (although at the end he suggests dedicating candles to more recent instances of almost-destruction in Jewish history, like the Holocaust or Inquisition), I think that we should not. To me, Hanukkah’s beauty and power grows as the years go on and the holiday becomes even more of an opportunity to be thankful that Jews, often the few and the weak, have somehow managed to survive for all of these years.
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