I love forgetting Christmas.
In America, this was impossible. Come Thanksgiving I would lose myself in a rush of jingles, trees and presents, but when I went to Israel in the December of my senior year I noticed that everything seemed quieter: fewer songs blared through public speakers, the malls were less crowded and the only lights showing were the quiet candles burning from window after window down the street. Then on the afternoon of the sixth day of Hanukkah, I realized what was going on: it was December 25. Christmas was almost over.
This all seemed more authentic to me. Hanukkah in Israel is not commercial; rather, it serves as a unifying force between the secular and religious populations both due to its friendly cultural component (lighting candles, singing songs) and its ideological implications. Secular Israelis celebrate Hannukah as a military victory, the story of a small Jewish army that defeated non-Jews and set up a Jewish state in the Holy land, a proto-Zionist narrative that recalls Israel’s fight for independence or the Six Day War.
I appreciated this celebration when I was 17 and thought that I was, for the first time, experiencing the real Hanukkah, the Jewish holiday set on its own terms, not refashioned as a copy of a Gentile festival. In Israel, I thought, we do not need to compromise our celebration.
But I never asked myself what that celebration was about. Was it this:
A small band of indigenous warriors, with makeshift weapons and a self-organized non-state army, rises up against its Westernizing occupiers and their collaborators to liberate its homeland in the name of the true God and His religion.
Or was it is as Gary Rosenblatt writes in the Jewish Week:
[If] the Maccabees, heroes of the Chanukah story, were around today, they would be leading the West Bank settlersâ€™ current protests, decrying the Jerusalem government for abandoning its Zionist and religious imperative to claim all of the land of Israel as holy and non-negotiable.
Many scholars have pointed out that the Maccabees fought more against their own Jewish brethren than the Assyrian Greeks; in like fashion, the extreme wing of the settlers now opposes the IDF and the Israeli government.
We celebrate these Maccabees every year. Rosenblatt writes that the settlers we villify are nothing less than “the incarnation of the Maccabees.”
Rosenblatt continues to say, in his article, that by turning Hannukah into a Jewified Christmas Americans have brushed aside this important ideological struggle for Hannukah’s soul.
It seems, however, that Israelis have compromised too. Religious and secular there take Hanukkah as an opportunity to find some common ground and put aside many political differences to celebrate Jews beating Gentiles. And while this trend is shifting, with more Israelis using the holiday to make political points, it still acts as a feel-good period for the general population more than an opportunity for serious historical and intellectual questions.
Maybe that’s a good thing: we hear about Israeli politics enough (especially in Israel) that perhaps it’s overkill to ask whether the Maccabees would support Palestinian nationalists or settlers. Perhaps it’s better to compromise on songs and candles and Zionism than to problematize an otherwise accessible holiday.
But no matter who the Maccabees were and whom they would support, we know one thing: they would have hated compromise. Judah and his brothers chose a military fight and religious revival over perpetuation of the status quo. And on the holiday we created for them, we praise God for “doing miracles in those days, at this time.”
They asked the tough questions and fought the good fight, whatever that would be today, and we need to follow in their footsteps.
Because while I may love to forget Christmas, I donâ€™t want to forget Hanukkah too.