Saturday, December 20, 2003

The Hannuka Story – Imshin’s Fantasmagorical Technicolor Version (specially tailored to suit her point of view).

[A forenote: The title is misleading. It's also the best thing in the whole post.]

The Head Heeb links to what he posted about Hannuka last year. I wasn’t reading him last year, I don't think, and I wouldn’t have read this post of his even if I were, since I was sitting Shiva during Hannuka. Here is an excerpt:

One of the paradoxes of Chanukah is that it is celebrated most avidly by assimilated Jews, who are most likely to live in non-Jewish neighborhoods and to feel the need for a substitute Christmas. The irony, of course, is that Chanukah is a celebration of the victory of fundamentalism over assimilation. The heroes of the Chanukah story, the Maccabees, were religious zealots; their enemies were as much the outward-looking Hellenistic Jews as the Seleucid monarchy. As a modern Jew who treasures the fusion of Jewish tradition and ethics with the limitless horizons of Western civilization, Chanukah seems to me a distinctly ambivalent holiday. I've always had a nagging suspicion that, had I been alive at the time of the Maccabees, I would not have been on their side.

On the other hand, I have the luxury of choices that the Maccabees did not. At the time of the Hasmonean rebellion, the Jews of Palestine suffered from religious persecution so severe as to amount to attempted cultural genocide. The Seleucids were not interested in fusing Jewish and Hellenistic tradition; they wanted, instead, to replace the Jewish culture with the Hellenistic. As unpleasant as the Maccabees might seem to those who prefer Judaism with a more worldly focus, they were necessary to the survival of the Jewish community of their time.

First of all, Palestine was a name given to the Land of Israel by the Romans, so “The Jews of Palestine” is hardly accurate, when discussing the Hellenistic period.

I wouldn’t know about how enthusiastically Diaspora Jews, secular or otherwise, celebrate Hannuka, not being one myself. Here it’s just another “little” festival, as opposed to the biggies: the High Holidays (Rosh Hashanna and Yom Kippur) and the three pilgrimages (Succot, Pesach/Passover, and Sahvuot). It’s popular because it’s fun. The candle lighting is fun; the Hannuka Gelt (money) is fun; the latkes (fried potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (doughnuts) are fun; the s’vivonim (dreidles/spinning tops) are fun. Kids sometimes get to go on organized marches round the streets carrying burning torches and that’s great fun. It’s always been a favorite festival of mine, although it’s meaning has changed slightly now, because I will always connect it to my mother’s death.

The idea of the Maccabees as the ultra-religious fanatics of old is not a new one for me. I’ve never really known what to do with it, but today it suddenly crossed my mind that it’s the same as the Kipling thing. Here we are judging people, who lived thousands of years ago, by today’s values. Jonathan says that if he had lived back then he probably would have been opposed to the Maccabees. But how can he know this? Things were quite different. He points out that what was happening was an attempt of cultural genocide. And this is exactly the point. In those days, you were who you worshipped. Secularism didn’t exist. Nationalism didn’t exist. Cultural genocide, as Jonathan calls it, was standard procedure for dealing with conquered peoples.

Worship was usually localized in this region, with a neighborhood deity being accepted by everyone in the vicinity. Remember the people of the Kingdom of Israel who were exiled and the Samaritans who came in their place? On their arrival, the Samaritans (good or otherwise) commenced worshipping the local god, didn’t they? And that local god just happened to be the One God of the Israelites who were there before. It seems no one thought to fill them in on this particular god’s special quality – that he wasn’t just another local god. They just picked up the rituals and carried them out, no questions asked. (The One God still must have had something about him, because some of those Samaritans lasted it out, and amazingly managed to keep a separate identity from other inhabitants of Samaria down the centuries. Most of them are now living in the town of Holon, south of Tel Aviv).

Anyway, fast forward to Greek times: Spreading their culture among the natives was their way of gaining and keeping control. Seeing as their culture was so vastly superior to what was prevalent in most of the places they reached, this wasn’t a problem. Not so with those pesky Judeans (or were they Jews by then?) who must have found the Greek human-like gods, with their little stories and family squabbles a bit hard to swallow. In short, although the Hellenistic lifestyle was very tempting, the Jews must have seen themselves as greatly spiritually superior. I can imagine that those of less intellectual and more materialistic inclinations would have been those more likely to be swept away by Hellenistic influences. I doubt Jonathan (his Head Heebness), as we know him, would have been among them (Now there’s a thought – the Maccabees as lefty intellectuals, teehee).

All just fun speculation, not to be taken too seriously - a bit like life.

[Afterthought: I should have called this post something on the lines of "It Ain't Necessarily So", but I just loved the current title so much.]