Despite having nearly no religious significance, not appearing in the Tanakh, and only warranting a few passing references in the Mishna, Hanukkah seems to stand out as an important cultural event for American Jewry and is largely viewed as the quintessential Jewish holiday to non-Jews in America. This is largely due to its calendar proximity to Christmas and inclusion on television programs which provides illusions of multicultural inclusion. Jewish symbols featured in advertisements are used to latch the Jewish population into participating in “holiday season” consumerism. This is a part of television’s much broader role in assimilating Jews and other minority/immigrant groups into America’s capitalist culture. It is a great irony because the premise of Hanukkah stems from a revolt against those attempting to acculturate the Jewish people.
My religious upbringing, one common of a conservative Jewish family in America, included joyous celebrations of Hanukkah filled with community, love, bonding, and gifts. We sat around the table eating traditional home-cooked meals with lit candles in our menorahs. My brothers and I particularly enjoyed the celebration as it did not include any dense prayer sessions like other holidays. On occasion we were told the story of Hanukkah: long ago, Jewish people led by a group known as the Maccabees, whose name is taken from the Hebrew word meaning “hammer,” regained control of our holy Temple. Those Hebrew people found one day’s worth of oil that burned miraculously in the Temple’s candelabra for eight days, an event worth commemorating more than two thousand years later.
The cute oil miracle narrative is a common, child-friendly alternative to the graphic version of the story about the seven-year Maccabean Revolt against the occupying Seleucid Empire. According to Jewish texts, a significant portion of the Jewish population in Jerusalem (including those in priesthood and within the upper echelon) had become Hellenistic and sympathetic to the occupying power after many years of acculturation and occupation. A decree was supposedly given that forbade Jewish religious practice and all were forced to worship Greek gods. This sparked a guerrilla revolt led by the rural Judah Maccabee and his militants. In an attempt to restore both their religious ideals and control of territory, these Jewish heroes attacked both the occupying force and Hellenistic Jews. The Maccabees smashed the public pagan altars of acculturated Jews and even forcefully circumcised their boys.
The Jewish-on-Jewish attacks in Maccabean times are uniquely fascinating because Jews corrupted by an outside group were just as deserving of violent retribution as the oppressing force. I do not accept these stories without criticism, of course. Why is it that Jews have made legends of those who forcefully circumcised children? Even if restoring the basic tenants of Judaism required violence against our own people to accomplish, the justification is highly nuanced and these people were not without what most would now consider crimes against humanity.
Hanukkah was not the only occasion I heard stories about warrior-heroes in my Jewish upbringing. My grandmother, a survivor of Auschwitz, often told me stories of Jewish struggle in the Shoah including tales about my great-uncle, a Nazi-killing partisan fighter who also survived the war. I have long identified with stories of Jewish resistance and growing up I sometimes imagined myself as a righteous Jewish freedom fighter in a dystopian future where society may once again attempt to eradicate Jewish people by means of mass-murder or forced cultural assimilation.
As I grew older, I began to realize that Jews are living in a time where there are great efforts to strip our cultural identities from us. Many Jewish people have been corrupted by a capitalist society that promotes war, inequality, injustice, and obedient homogenization. Finding inspiration in the story of the Maccabees, as well as questioning their transgressions, I wonder what truly subversive and righteous act parallel to smashing pagan altars and circumcising young boys could be done in order to help transition acculturated American Jews to a life based on peace, community, and Jewish ethics.
My first thought, one directly intended to counteract the negative influence of television on the Hanukkah ritual, was to break into countless Jewish homes and smash their contemporary altar of acculturation. All of their television sets would be punctured with a sledgehammer sized hole accompanied with a signed note from the Modern Maccabee containing information on the exploitive elements of American society and encouragement to participate in righteous activities to fill the void of free time that television once occupied. If I were to act upon this fantasy (I am not going to and am not encouraging others to try), I don’t have a doubt in my mind that I would be pulled out of my home by the police, shackled, brought up on hate crime or terrorism charges, and shunned by Jewish establishment figures. An action like this would probably have little impact. It might come up in conversation around a few Hanukkah tables — right after they tell the story of the Maccabees (of course, forgetting to mention that their heroes violently took knives to countless babies’ genitals) and right before they give their children $25 gift cards.
Despite the flaws of this initial dream, there seems to be great potential power in collective non-violent actions intended to enlighten Jews of alternatives to a consumerist and capitalist lifestyle. I encourage you to smash your own television this Hanukkah so that you can spend the time you previously spent sitting in front of a screen dreaming of and actualizing more constructive actions inspired by The Maccabees. It might be one of greatest gifts you could give to yourself, your family, and Jewish community this Hanukkah.