Kenny from "South Park" laments that "it's tough to be a Jew at Christmas" because of all of the commercial attention that is thrown at the holiday. I say it's just the opposite. Christmas time is exactly the time to celebrate Channukah and to celebrate being Jewish. After all, that is what the holiday is all about.
Channukah, which is actually a minor Jewish holiday, has lost its original meaning in the attempt to keep up with Christmas. Channukah is the celebration of a military victory of the Jews of Israel in 168 B.C.E. (Before the Common Era) over the ruling Syrian-Greek king Antiochus IV, also known as Epiphanes IV.
Following the conquest by the Greeks in 334 B.C.E., the Judean province was allowed a great deal of autonomy, including religious freedom, by Alexander the Great and succeeding kings. Alexander, Philip of Macedonia and their successors believed that more wealth would come from provinces that were allowed autonomy and did not require a standing occupation army. By the time the Greco-Syrian king Antiochus came around, some 170 years later, the lesson was lost and he decided that not only was he a king but a god-king to be worshipped by all under his rule.
Well, that was OK with most of the peoples under his rule since they worshipped multiple gods - and what's one more? But for the Jews of Judea, that went against the Second Commandment: "Thou shalt have no other gods before me."
As the Jews continued to defy the new anti-Jewish laws, new laws were introduced that were even more harsh. All study and celebration of the Jewish religion was prohibited. These laws and decrees culminated with the desecration of the Temple in Jerusalem with the placement of a statue of Zeus/ Antiochus and the sacrifice of a pig at its altar.
This lead to the creation of underground schools. The teacher would conduct the classes out in the open, but when an inspector or soldier approached the scrolls were hidden and spinning tops were taken out, and it looked like a group of young men gambling. Thus the driedel was born. Also, an underground resistance was formed of small groups of religious Jews who fought in small guerrilla actions against the Greco-Syrians.
The main rebellion started when Mattath-ieus, a priest in the city of Modin just outside Jerusalem, killed a Syrian officer who was about to offer a pig sacrifice on the town altar. In the ensuing melee the rest of the patrol was killed by Mattathieus's sons. As word of this spread, more and more local groups came to join the sons of Mattathieus known as the "Macca-bees."
"Maccabee" is derived from the Hebrew word for "hammer," and the strongest and boldest son was "Judah the Maccabee." Judah the Maccabee and his brothers lead an ever-growing, ragtag army against the Greco-Syrian army in a series of battles, culminating with the battle of Emmaus outside Jerusalem.
After defeating the Greco-Syrians, the victorious Jewish army reentered the Temple and proceeded to clean it out and make it ready for rededication and sanctification.
Legend says that when the Jews wanted to re-light the seven-branched Menorah of the Temple they could find only enough holy oil to keep the Menorah lit for a day. The miracle of Channukah is that the oil lasted the eight days (no working on the Sabbath!) needed to produce more holy oil.
Beginning Friday, we celebrate Channukah by lighting a special Menorah that holds eight candles and an additional shamash, or helper candle. Each night an extra candle is lit by the shamash until all eight are lit. Families usually eat a festive meal with something that is fried in oil. In our family that is usually potato latkes (pancakes). In Israel, jelly donuts fried in oil are served up as a Channukah treat. Dreidels are spun and bets are placed usually with chocolate coins - for the kids, of course.
And the story of Channukah is told about how a small group of Jews who wanted religious freedom fought a world power to keep that right. My explanation why Channukah is so relevant, especially at Christmas time, is that we fought to remain Jewish. We light the Menorah now to remind us that the freedom to pray as we wish is not just a right granted by a Constitution, but a tradition that goes back almost 2,200 years. Happy Channukah!
(Larry Waxman is a Martinez resident.)
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