Chanukah is a holiday of bad takes. No one, absolutely no one, seems to know what this holiday is all about. Two weeks ago, in the New York Times food section, a recipe for Chanukah food was listed. Not for latkas, not for sufganiyot, not even for Greek salad, which would have been kinda funny. Instead, it was a Chanukah recipe for Matza ball soup. You know, the quintessential Chanukah food…
And that is nothing compared to the Bed Bath & Beyond Chanukah-themed pillow. It was a beautiful pillow with the words, “Why is this night different from all other nights? Happy Hanukah!” Do they not know Jews?! They literally could have walked into any Bed Bath & Beyond and asked every second shopper. The Bed Bath and Beyond parking lot is Chabad’s favorite place to hunt Jews. None of us can resist those oversized coupons! “Okay, okay, I’ll put on tefillin, just let me through!”
It’s not just non-Jews who don’t have a clue. I just saw a special edition of Chanukah gelt created by a certain Jewish-led group. Instead of Happy Chanukah written on the tin foil, it said, Free Palestine. Yes, the holiday upon which the Jewish People, two thousand years ago, defended their homeland – I don’t see it. Or, less egregious, but equally wrong is the narrative that Chanukah was established as a holiday to celebrate religious freedom. Which is sort of true. Yes, religious observance was under attack. But the Maccabees weren’t fighting for a laissez faire acceptance of all faiths, an Imagine-esque live and let live reality. They were fighting a life and death battle to promote the Jewish faith to the absolute exclusion of all others.
As we all know, the real Chanukah story involved two groups of Jews fighting over the soul of the Jewish People. There were the traditionalists, holding on for their dear life to the ways of their parents, arguing that the Jewish People must never change their ways, and the Hellenists, who sought to merge the wisdom of Aristotle to that of Moses, and wanted to part ways with the laws that seemed outdated. Antiochus, the Greeks, they were supporting actors at best in this epic drama of Jew vs. Jew.
I don’t blame people for not getting it; it’s a complicated storyline. And making it even more complicated, and what made the battle so fierce, was not the great divide between Athens and Jerusalem, but their many similarities. Yes, there were barbaric fights taking place in the coliseums, there was the Greek focus on aesthetics, and a certain amount of hedonism. But at the same time, there was no other culture that shared so much with our Torah. In the Hellenized states, the great Greek thinkers were pondering the meaning of existence and promoting an ethical life. It was the Greeks who put the word civil into civilization; they were creating an international community, not out of oppression and terror, but out of tolerance and the mixing of old and new. “Yaft Elokim l’Yefet” (Bereishis, 9:27) – There is good reason that the Torah describes Greece as beautiful, or that the Talmud (Megillah, 8b) allows for a Torah scroll to be written in no other languages other than Hebrew and Greek, and that the Zohar (Shemos, 237a) proclaims that “Yavan/ Greece is close to the path of true faith.”
Despite the great joy that surrounds this holiday – I love watching the dancing flames and singing with my family and with eight days of fried food and family fun it’s hard to complain – But in truth, I struggle mightily with fully embracing this holiday. The Greeks we defeated were the forefathers of Western civilization and all that it has to offer; public education, equality, civil responsibility, the arts; so many of the positive features of our society can be traced back to those ancient Greeks. Yes, there are elements of this Greek beauty that conflict with my religious value system, but there is also so much I adore.
Each year on Chanukah, I try to ask myself which ideas and values that I hold near and dear are Jewish values or which are Greek values. Because – and I’ll speak for myself when I say, the battle of the Maccabees is far from over. It’s no longer taking place in Israel. It’s alive and well and raging inside – inside me, and I imagine inside many of us. And so every year, I return to the notion that there is a part of me that is Greek and a part of me that is Jewish. Each year, I change, as we all do. Some things I struggled with in the past are no longer struggles. Some things are even greater struggles. But one way or another, I am still both a Jew and a Greek.
There is a part of me that is Greek – a part of me that believes that quality of life is paramount, and a person should have full autonomy over his/her own body. And there is a part of me that is Jewish, that believes that our bodies are a gift from G-d, not ours, and that every moment of life, as painfully challenging as it may be, is priceless, and that G-d is the One to choose what I can and cannot do with my body and life.
There is a part of me that is Greek – a part of me that believes in a plurality of ideas, in everyone being entitled to their viewpoint, or as we like to say in our society, to their “truth.” And there’s a part of me that’s Jewish, that believes that Moshe Emes v’soroso emes, that the Torah is true and while Judaism embraces plurality far more than other faiths, it believes in an objective right and wrong.
There is a part of me that is Greek – that believes, in the words of Mark Manson, that “One day, you and everyone you love will die. And beyond a small group of people for an extremely brief period of time, little of what you say or do will ever matter… We are inconsequential cosmic dust, bumping and milling about on a tiny blue speck. We imagine our own importance. We invent our purpose—we are nothing.” And there is a part of me that is Jewish that believes that every act, every word, every thought impacts the cosmos and is so incredibly precious to G-d.
And lastly, there is a part of me that is Greek – a part of me that if I were to be totally honest, at times is troubled with miracles I did not witness, in authorship I cannot verify, and in a future that seems so distant and foreign. And yes, in the darkest of times, even struggles with the existence of a Being I have not heard from. And at the very same time, there is a part of me that is so powerfully Jewish – a part of me that is over-awed by the majesty of the world, the profundity of the Torah, the arc of history, and even if it cannot be articulated, just knows that there must be an Author. A part of me that is awakened during prayer and feels a presence that shatters those doubts into millions and millions of pieces.
No, this battle is not over. All night long we struggle. It’s not easy celebrating Chanukah when you’re both Jewish and Greek.
My grandmother is here with us today. She grew up in Winsted, Connecticut. There were hardly any Jews, and no religious Jews. Her father died when my grandmother was 14. Her mother, my great-grandmother, struggled to support her family and so my grandmother who was in high school at the time, decided to do some work after school. She got a job as a typist and was told that she had to work on Shabbos. My grandmother, knowing that the family needed this money desperately, obliged and went to work.
As she describes it, “I sat there with the typewriter but my fingers wouldn’t type. I just sat there and sat there and sat there.” Finally, she decided that she couldn’t do it. She told her boss that she has to quit because she can’t work, and she decided right there and then that she wouldn’t work on Shabbos.
Today, we’re celebrating my grandmother’s 90th birthday. She has a large family, children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren. Who knows, but had she chosen to type on that fateful Shabbos and not made that commitment to keep Shabbos, it’s likely that she would not have met my grandfather and none of us, no one in my family, would be here today.
But we are here. We are here because she believed in a G-d she could not see. She believed in a Torah that everyone around her ignored. She believed in a value system that didn’t immediately gratify her. She wrestled but she chose to light a candle.
And because of her, I too will light a candle into this dark and confusing night. Not a torch, a small humble candle. A light that increases its glow every night ever so subtly.
To me, that small flame represents the march of history. It reminds me that this is not the first time that Jewish values were viewed as archaic or backward. It wasn’t always easy or fashionable to be Jewish and to live by its laws, but that ner tamid, that ever-lasting flame represents a history which has shown us time and time again that today’s morality is tomorrow’s backwardness.
To me, that small flame reminds me of another small flame, one I do not see but believe in; my soul, a Godly gift that is imbued with holiness and thirsts for meaning. She is a powerful rebuke and rebuttal to the aimlessness, meaninglessness, and hedonism that is rampant in society. As believers in a soul, meaning is not a figment of our imagination; our neshama represents a purpose and calling that is intrinsic to our existence.
To me, that small flame reminds me of G-d Himself. A fire in a burning bush. Reminding me that although I cannot see Him, He is there, specifically in the darkest, most painful and most seemingly G-dless places. Like the fiery pillars that protected my ancestors, I am warmed by the knowledge of His ever-present care and concern.
Like my parents and grandparents before me, I will light a candle, I will give voice to my beliefs, with the hope that my convictions will be passed on to my descendants who will light candles just like me.
I am a Jew, and I am a Greek, but ultimately the Maccabees continue to persevere. And that’s because “Just a little bit of light,” the Lubavitcher Rebbe once said, “can banish a whole lot of darkness.”
Let’s use the remaining three days of chanukah to strengthen our beliefs, to strengthen our resolve, to be honest with the conflict inside, but to allow the light of our faith to shine through.