Disclaimer #1: If you are here looking for part 2 of my super-cheery, holiday stillbirth story, I’m sorry, but you’ll have to wait a week or so, as I’m taking a wee break from that one to bring you today’s more timely post. Don’t worry, I’ll resume the tale soon…
Disclaimer #2: If you are new to this blog, you should know that I am not Jewish, but my husband is, which makes our household… Jewish-ish. We’re slowly exploring what this means for our bourgeoning family…
Soo, I was getting all ready to write a post about celebrating the miracles of everyday life during Hanukkah (you know, just like the Jews celebrated the miracle of the lamp staying lit in the temple for eight days). Then I decided to do a little research on the Hanukkah story, just to make sure I really knew what it was all about.
Yeah. Turns out I didn’t. According to this article in the New York Times, Hanukkah is really a story about how some fundamentalist Jews decided to take action against a bunch of assimilating Jews by attacking them (read: civil war), along with the clearly oppressive Hellenistic regime ruling over them. The true miracle being celebrated is that a band of scrappy insurgents did, indeed, force out the most powerful military force in the world, and succeeded in preserving their traditions. However, it’s also upsetting, since there was a bunch of Jew-on-Jew violence, and more than a little oppression on the part of the Maccabees both during the uprising and after… (The rabbis added that lamp story later on to bring a little more God into the picture.)
Oh, post-modernist historical analysis, why can’t you just leave a nice story alone? I’m a person who likes to feel warm and fuzzy during holidays with words like peace, joy, and love. Do I really want to be lighting candles each night thinking about oppression, murder, and the pros and cons of radical religious fundamentalism?
As it turns out, the thing I needed to resolve my Hanukkah dilemma was a good, old-fashioned Hollywood musical. The other night my husband and I watched the movie Fiddler on the Roof, which I hadn’t seen since I was a child. Growing up, my least favorite part of the movie was that song “Tradition.” If you’ve never seen it, or don’t remember, it’s just this old guy (Tevye) walking around his village singing (loudly) about all of the traditions they have, and how he has no idea how most of them started or what most of them mean, yet that the most important thing in life is preserving these traditions. I always saw Tevye as pathetic and backward, desperately needing to be yanked into the 20th century.
But, despite multiple viewings as a child (yes, musical theater nerd), I somehow missed this key bit of dialogue: “Each one of us is a fiddler on the roof. Trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck… And how do we keep our balance?… Tradition!”
This got me thinking about whether or not I could somehow make peace with Hanukkah—abandoning the old, pat, good-vs.-evil narrative—and perhaps, instead, come up with some kind of new Hanukkah tradition mash-up (kugel?) that would enable us to “keep our balance” and light our candles with integrity and peace.
So, this Hanukkah, we’ll be focusing on three words and traditions that reflect a new, post-modern, Hollywood-inspired interpretation of this Winter-Holiday-that-is-Most-Definitely-not-Christmas:
Play: As Tevye so perceptively pointed out, we’re all here on earth striving to eke out our own tune in peace. So we’ll have a game night with music and sing-alongs. We’ll try to remember and appreciate that the simple joys are always right here, available to us at any time (right before we try not to cut each other’s throats out from competitiveness).
Reflect: Stopping each evening to light a candle and say a prayer in Hebrew opens up space to say a prayer in English as well. We’ll say (and maybe record) one Thanks! or Wow! (to borrow from Ann Lamott) for each of the eight nights. It’ll be sad to lose the beautiful symbolism of God miraculously keeping the lamp glowing for eight days, but it’s even more beautiful to celebrate the daily miracles the Universe brings into our lives.
Give: Whether or not the triumph of the Maccabees truly represented liberation or not, it turns out that Hanukkah (like Passover), is ultimately about freedom. Re-watching the struggles of Tevye and his family in pre-revolutionary Russia reminded me of the struggle of oppressed, harassed peoples everywhere, trying to make their way in a hostile world… and the unfortunate human tendencies of all people (Jews included!) to project onto and demonize others. This Hanukkah, we’ll show our gratitude for our freedoms by researching charities that help oppressed groups and giving generously to help enable all people to be free.
Yes, we will stuff our faces with Latkes. Yes, we will also give and open gifts. We will probably even eat bewilderingly terrible-tasting chocolate gelt. These are traditions that I won’t fight or try to add any more significance to than necessary. (We eat latkes because fried starch is delicious, damn it!) But I feel more ready than ever to begin lighting the menorah on Saturday, armed with the wonderful and ugly complexities of historical accuracy along with a few tweaks of tradition.