Deep dive into Hanukkah themes

themes of Hanukkah imageLast year at this time, I wrote an article about the complex, often contradictory, Hanukkah themes in children’s books. I looked over about 200 children’s Hanukkah titles and made these very general observations: Many older Hanukkah books focus on the Maccabees as brave Jewish warriors. While physical and moral courage continues to be a common theme, others include a focus on faith, “not by might but by spirit alone;” religious freedom; and being Jewish in a Christian majority country, including authentic friendship between Christians and Jews.

And then there are the books, maybe the majority of them, which emphasize Hanukkah as the Jewish midwinter holiday, the light in the middle of winter, with warm family gatherings, and the generosity and thoughtfulness of present exchange. The point of many of these books seems to be to familiarize Jewish kids with the symbols of the holiday: the dreidel, the menorah, gelt, and of course, presents. Included in these is the Hanukkah around the world theme: Hanukkah in Alaska, Antarctica, the prairie and even under the sea! These books convey the message that Jews are like everyone else….just with a little twist. Others that do this are the ones that riff on familiar folktales to tell a Hanukkah story: the gingerbread man becomes the runaway latkes or the runaway dreidels; Scrooge becomes Scroogmacher; the Jewish sorcerer’s apprentice can’t stop the pan from frying latkes….you get the point. I concluded that perhaps it is the proliferation of “Hanukkah in Chelm” books that do the best job of conveying the spirit of Hanukkah for children. The wise fools/foolish wise ones are uniquely Jewish, timeless, faithful, and oh so brave in their foolishness.

This year, however, I’ve found myself looking with a much more sober eye at various versions, for adults, of the “true meaning” of Hanukkah.  As we are daily confronted with religious zealotry in its present expressions, what do we hear in the echoes of Hanukkah? As AARC member Benji Ben Baruch writes in “The Stories of Hanukkah,” the significance of the Hanukkah story was reinterpreted many times over the generations reflecting the “particular political group at a specific point in time with conflicting visions of the present and future needs of the Jewish people.” It appears to me that we are in an era of transition from the late 20th century glorification of the Maccabee’s fight for independence into a cautionary era, focusing on recognizing the dangers of zealotry and the potential devolution of power to tyranny. In a lecture by Yehuda Kurtzer titled “On Terrorism and Nationalism, Reflections on Hanukkah in Light of the 20th Anniversary of the Rabin Assassination” (part of the 5776 Rabbinic Holiday Webinar Series from the Shalom Hartman Institute), Kurtzer repeatedly refers to Matisyahu Maccabee’s actions in the core Hanukkah story as acts of “terrorist, nationalist violence” (induced by a sense of powerlessness and combined with a conviction to Divine will), pointed language in our particular time. I cannot possibly summarize this profoundly important lecture here, but if you have an hour to devote to deep Jewish learning, I highly recommend it. Other recent, and briefer, reflections on Hanukkah for our time are here by Judith Seid and here by David Wolpe.

I asked several AARC members for their own top Hanukkah themes. Responses included:

  • From darkness to light/faith in the light returning
  • Rededicating ourselves to our beliefs
  • Rekindling hope
  • Courage to be who we are
  • The right/need to fight for your religious freedom
  • Jewish perseverance
  • Inspiration to fight against tyranny
  • Strong faith/spirit as a tool to win anything
  • A great leader is like the shamash candle: serve, light others fire, and caring/watching from above.

I hope these words inspire additional reflections on the meaning of Hanukkah for each of us.