The Real Chanukah

Will the Real Chanukah Please Stand Up!

Several years ago Hadassah Magazine ran a story about retired Army Captain, Mike Neulander.  He was stationed in the Persian Gulf during the war there and, as a Jew he resisted the Army’s suggestion that, to protect him from torture should he be captured,  his ID tags be changed from the “J” for “Jewish” to the less provocative tag which read “Protestant B.”

The Hadassah story is about how Mike Neulander and his fellow Jewish soldiers refused to turn in their Jewish dog tags for one marked Protestant B., and  how, on the first night of Chanukah 1990 they y came to value their  decision. As they ate their unusual mix of donated Jewish goodies – latkes, jelly doughnuts and gefilte fish, each soldier showed his tags and they realized that not a one of them had opted to keep  the Jewish “J” from their identification.

Mike said they felt like Maccabee soldiers.  No matter how tough it might be to be Jewish — especially fighting in a country openly hostile to Jews, they were not going to sacrifice their identity and their Jewish pride.  It just meant too much to them. On that first night of Chanukah, 28 years ago in the Persian Gulf, Mike Neulander knew what Chanukah was all about. He was sure, but are we certain that we know the true meaning of Chanukah?

My family got a television in the sixties and one of the first programs that I watched was a show called “To Tell the Truth.”  Maybe you remember it. Three players were invited to the stage and each claimed to be the same person. They told their stories and then the contestants had to guess which one of the three was really telling the truth.  

Imagine for a moment that you are an audience member of “To Tell the Truth” and before you are the three special guests.  Each one claims to be the festival of Chanukah. Let me introduce them to you.

“Shalom and Shalom! My name is Chanukah.  I’m a religious celebration that commemorates a miracle that took place over two thousand years ago in ancient Israel. A tiny bit of oil that was used in the dedication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem to light the seven branched menorah miraculously burned for eight days in a row.  The Maccabees declared me “Chanukah!” to mark this fabulous miracle that God performed for us Jews.”

And now for contestant number 2:

“Greetings Fellow Landsmen! My name is Chanukah and I am the real Chanukah.  That is because I am a political holiday. This week we mark the victory of a small band of patriots who routed Antiochus and his henchmen from our land.  I am the real celebration because I stand for freedom and national independence.”

And now let’s meet contestant number 3:

“A big Hello to everyone.  My name is Chanukah and those other two, although they are half right, they are not completely correct.  I am the real Chanukah because I mark the end of a civil war of Jew against Jew. Yes, the Maccabees were victorious but the real meaning of their victory was that they took control of ancient Judea back from their fellow Jews who had started acting like Greeks and tried to get other Jews to do the same.  Had it been up to them, Judaism would have been done for. Judaism as a unique way of life would have disappeared from the world.”

And then on the television show the theme music would play and the host would say (dramatically) “And now would the real Chanukah please stand up. Wait~ All three of ther Chanukahs are leaping to their feet!  Why? Because strange as it sounds, there are at lease three different versions of what happened on Chanukah, depending on, what books you read and whom you ask. And even stranger, there is a little bit of truth in each version.  

It’s not only “beauty” that is in the eye of the beholder.  “Reality” is as well. And more than any other holiday on the Jewish calendar, Chanukah has been the subject of different interpretations, depending on the religious and political currents of the day.

Contestant Number One – Chanukah  – The Religious Version

The first version of Chanukah, contestant number one, is the religious version, based on a story that first appears in the Talmud, about 500 years after Chanukah took place.  Because they were troubled by the political overtones of this holiday some of our sages recast the celebration in spiritual terms. The sages said that God — not the Maccabees was the real hero of Chanukah.  It was God who delivered the mighty into the hands of the weak.

Contestant Number Two – Chanukah – The Political Version

The second version of Chanukah, is the political version. We find this story in the book of Maccabees, a book which was never included in our Bible but which, ironically found its place in the Catholic Biblical canon.  For modern day Zionists this version was the most inspiring since it told the story of strength and self determination. The story says that what we Jews need today are modern day Maccabees.

Contestant Number Three – Chanukah – The Recent Version

Finally, the third version of Chanukah, the one about the Jewish civil war is the most recent.  Based on the writings of Jewish scholar, Elias Bickerman, this story claims that Chanukah commemorated the end of a civil war between Jews of different persuasions.  What was really happening, scholars say, is that the Maccabees were more concerned with stopping their fellow Jews from behaving in ways that looked like assimilation, than they were dealing with an evil king and his invading army.  

Considering these choices, it seems a bit too easy to say that each version of the Chanukah story has a certain amount of truth in it. That may be true, but it begs the question.  Could it be that the real Chanukah can be found NOT in what actually happened (we may never know that) but in what’s happening today. What lessons can this holiday teach us? When I ask myself that question, it is the third version of the story, the Jewish civil war, that seems most relevant.  

In an age when Jewish continuity is a priority, the lesson for me this year is Jewish survival.  The real demons are not only the external enemies who threaten to destroy us; they also include the internal struggles that find Jew fighting against Jew.  These battles are the real threat to our vitality and our way of life.

Who is the best Jew?  Who is more religious?  Who does what a good Jew should do, according to MY way of thinking?  When we hear comments that Jews in the Reform tradition are like goyim, or when we poke fun at traditional Jews as “frummies,” out of touch with reality, whom are we really hurting?    I could be wrong, but I think we are hurting ourselves.

For me this year the lesson of Chanukah is less about what’s going on in the world and more about what’s happening inside our own Jewish communities.  

The man with the dog tags, Mike Neulander – it is his story that speaks to me. In that drab army tent stuck  on some Saudi Arabian plain, Jews from all backgrounds shared in a Chanukah celebration. And as Mike went from Jew to Jew, stopping to look at each set of dog tags and as he slowly realized that no one — not one single soldier had given up the “J” on their tag – that not one had opted for the Defense Department’s cover to camouflage or disguise Jewish identity – Mike’s heart was filled with hope.  In my heart I feel the same way.

Hope  – that when it comes down to it, no matter what our background, no matter what our practice,  no matter what, we are all Jews. This Chanukah, as we celebrate our own Jewish pride and sense of self- worth, may we widen that circle to include all Jews. May we acknowledge and then act like we are the treasures to each other that we truly are. As the Maccabees demonstrated,  in these days and times, our survival depends on it.

Thanks to The Conservative Yeshiva of Jerusalem for their work that forms the basis of this article.   

View more Chanukah blogs here.  

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