A few weeks ago, I wrote an article about Chanukah. When I wrote it, I was afraid of internet backlash, so I presented a very sanitized, superficial version of Chanukah -- the version that my elementary school teachers always wanted my parents to come to class and depict, instead of actually teaching my classmates about other religions.
My parents always refused. And now, I refuse to let my own article stand uncontested, on three specific points.
1. That’s not the real Chanukah story.
The majority of the people in Jerusalem at the time were OK with assimilating into Greek culture, just as many American Jews today are OK with assimilating into American culture. The Maccabees were the religious ultra-conservatives who refused to give any ground, and saw their countrymen’s secular behavior as an unforgivable betrayal of G-d’s teachings. The Maccabees not only drove out the Greek army, but also murdered those of their own people who had become “less Jewish.” The “miracle of the oil” part of the story was added later to make the whole debacle seem more positive and approved by G-d.
Here’s the truth: every religion has its murderous zealots. They are not the majority, but they exist. We should neither pretend that they don’t exist, nor celebrate their actions.
2. I don’t just joke about us just deciding to “join the fun” of Christmas.
That’s exactly what it is. Chanukah isn’t a religiously important holiday. The story isn’t in the Torah, and G-d doesn’t command that we celebrate it. Period.
But I shouldn’t have to say that. I shouldn’t have to devalue one of my holidays every time some gentile asks me, “Why are you upset about not getting holidays off? You get time off for Chanukah!” Actually, we don’t. We sometimes get time off for Chanukah, when it happens to line up with Christmas. We sometimes get time off for Passover, when it happens to line up with Easter. We never get time off for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.
In the United States, it doesn’t matter if you’re a religious Christian or not -- you get time off for Christian holidays, and that’s it. But everyone deserves time off on their own holidays, whether they plan to use the time to follow their god’s commandments or to just spend time with family (as if spending time with family is somehow unimportant!).
3. I left out the best story!
Potato latkes aren’t the original Chanukah tradition. Originally, Chanukah was celebrated with cheese latkes, because of the following story: During a different invasion of the Assyrians, a woman named Judith invited the Assyrian general to stay in her tent. She fed him salty cheese, which made him so thirsty that he drank enough wine to knock himself out. Judith then cut off the general’s head, winning the war all on her own.
Yeah, this story isn’t in the Torah either. G-d doesn’t tell us to celebrate Judith’s actions. But I’d rather celebrate her than a bunch of religious zealots who killed their own countrymen.