Thursday, December 2, 2010

My Favorite Hard-To-Spell Holiday

It's probably a good thing that there aren't more Hanukkah items in the stores.  I know I'd own them all.  IntrepidCat referred me to Modern Tribe and the Cuters were the beneficiaries of their catalog last night, on the first of the eight nights of lighting candles and reciting prayers and eating latkes (and donuts, as Roomie reminded me) and opening gifts.  Denizens, let me be the first person outside your family to wish you a Happy Hanukkah!

Please do not conflate the importance of Christmas to Christians with the importance of Hanukkah to Jews.  Hanukkah is not a biblical holiday.  That is to say, the story and rituals do not appear in the Pentateuch (the 5 Books of Moses) nor in what is called The Hebrew Bible by Wikipedia - a long list of texts which are common to both the Christian and "Old" Testament.  None of these texts deal with the zealots in the hills who thought that they could defeat the invading and defiling Greeks (the ones living in Syria at the time) and their elephants. High Priest Mattathias and his 5 sons took to the hills and drove Antiochus out of Jerusalem.  Returning to The Temple - the one built by Solomon, the one with The Wailing Wall - they found evidence of swine and idols.... neither of which they were cool with.  The purification and re-dedication process would take 8 days (don't ask why.... it's religion... they get to make it up as they go along) but there was only enough holy oil to last for the first day of the ceremonies.  My, oh, my... what to do... what to do?

Luckily, Miracle Max or someone of his ilk came to the rescue.  That itty-bitty-teeny-weeny-very-special-oil-ini (I got a little carried away and I'm sorry) lasted for the entire 8 days.  By that time, I suppose, more purified oil had been procured and the Eternal Flame over the Ark which holds the Torah was once more eternally illuminated.

It's an historical story, not one particularly fraught with religious significance, I think.  At the Burning Bush, Moses had the voice of Yahweh, after all.  This miracle seems more like the Almighty pitching in and doing his fair share of the Temple cleansing.  Kind of a reward for winning the battle and then cleaning up after the polluters.  But it's not that big a deal, religion wise.  There isn't a special service in the synagogue nor a proscription on working or driving or going to school. Families gather for potatoes fried in oil, the aforementioned latkes which are a lovely mixture of potatoes and onions heated to perfection in the commemorative oil on the unknown-to-the-Hasmonean's Teflon pan.  Eaten hot off the paper towels lined up next to the skillet, dipped in apple sauce or sour cream, they are, truly, a miracle, and I suppose that in itself might count as a ritual.  But only if you close your eyes and squint real hard. 

So what's all the fuss about?  It happens that the holiday begins on the 25th day in the Hebrew month of Kislev, which comes around sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas on the Julian calendar.  Some marketing maniac decided that Jewish kids needed a fancy holiday in the winter time just like their Christian buddies had and suddenly there were eight days of presents and fancy menorahs and the simple Jewish-home-fries-and-dreidle nights were commercialized and transformed into a pallid copy of an incomparable event. 

And that's really a shame. The holiday would do quite well standing on its own, thank you very much.   In the depths of winter, Hanukkah brings eight nights celebrating light.  As the holiday goes on, the Hanukkia, a special menorah to which an additional candle is added each night, burns brighter and bigger and better and my smile grows with it, fitting comfortably on my face, the corners of my mouth secured on my ears.  I don't like the fact that it is dark by 5:15 at this time of year.  Lighting the menorah is a nice way to fight back the blackness.  It brings me memories of my grandparents' house, spinning the dreidle for walnuts or pennies, sitting on the wooden plank floors with the scratchy rug poking through my tights as I sat there, listening to Daddooooo's father, Ben, tell me the story of the Jews in the mountain caves who fought the Syrian elephants and won.

It was pretty powerful stuff when I was little, and I like it still, now that I'm big.  There's something marvelous about a family that takes on an empire.  There weren't any girls in the story, but it didn't matter to me. I was Judah Maccabee, the eldest child and the one stabbing the spear into the belly of the pachyderm, with my wild-eyed, white bearded father, Mattithias, raising his staff in triumph as he watched from the rocky entrance to the cave.  I never doubted that I would be up to the task, and neither did my grandfather.  He knew I could do anything I wanted to do, and he made sure that I knew it, too.
I wonder..... might that have something to do with the fact that I like this holiday?

Whatever it is, the decorations are out and the candles have been lit and now I'm just waiting for the right night to fry up some latkes.  Brownies are in the mail and love is in the air.  Happy Happy Hanukkah!

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