THE BLOG
12/20/2013 10:12 am ET Updated Feb 19, 2014

The Darker Lessons of Hanukkah

Hanukkah! How glorious, our festival of lights!

Colorful candles blazed merrily in our golden menorot. Children crowed over Hanuka Gelt. We feasted, so lavishly, with our loved ones -- Ashkenazi's tables groaning under heaping platters of melt-in-your-mouth briskets, of latkes dripping with tart-sweet apple sauce, of decadent Berliner Sufganiyot; Sephardi's under gigantic terrines of spicy-sweet-salty stews swimming with plump fish, of delicately-herbed Kefta, of Zulbiye, those deep-fried cornflour latticeworks, bursting with saffron-syrup infused sweetness.

And what tales, songs we regaled ourselves with! Of Emperor Antiochus the Evil, sore oppressing our people, defiling Jerusalem, desecrating our Sanctum Sanctorum. Of the impossibly brave Hasmonean clan, called Macabees, the Hammers, fiercest guerilla warriors casting defiance in the mighty tyrant's very teeth. Of Judah, most puissant of the Macabees, driving Antiochus forth ("Banu Choshech Le'Garesh!"). Of our temple's rededication and the Miracle of the Oil, one miniscule flask somehow fueling our holy candelabrum throughout the week-long purification ceremonies -- a never-to-be-forgotten symbol of our people's inextinguishable neshama.

Such warmth, then, in this holiday. Such joy. Such abiding light!

Enough to make us forget the bloody, dreadful darkness at its core.

327BC: Alexander seizes Persia, greatest of classical antiquity's empires, along with its clients, to include the small kingdom of Israel. Capitalizing upon our homeland's geographical positioning, he turned it almost overnight into a central commercial channel between his realm's European and Asian reaches. Alexandrine lucre and culture thus soon flooded into Israel. Our small-time traders were swiftly made over into a powerful merchant class rooted as much in the Hellenic as the Jewish world; their once-sleepy trading villages swiftly made over into great metropoles boasting architecture, academies, stages to rival the empire's finest. By contrast, finding no purchase in Alexander's globalized marketplace, Israel's rustics became yearly poorer, more marginalized. They turned strongly to traditional Judaism, then, utterly rejecting Hellenism and its Israelite sympathizers. Ever eager to cripple his subjects' cultural solidarity, in which any resistance to his rule must needs be rooted, Alexander widens the rift by making our fledgling elites gather the countryside's taxes and allowing them to keep any "excess", wink-nudge, money they gathered.

The Diadochic wars, touched off by Alexander's untimely death, raging on three continents. The ascension and early years of the Seleucid Empire, greatest to emerge in Alexander's wake, its borders spanning our land to Greco-India -- Israel abided all unchanging: lest they unwittingly dam the gush of tax revenue that Alexander had caused us to bring forth, our various lieges maintained his policies towards Israel exactingly. Over the decades, then, our merchants continued to cultivate their wealth; to weave a glorious urban fabric studded with shining gems of art, learning; and to ride hard herd on our ever gaunter, more furious, more traditionalist rural communities.

188BC: the Seleucids sally into Europe -- poisoned by pride, ill council, they'd become convinced they could easily bring the continent's young power, Rome, low.

The Republic crushed them.

Utterly.

Twice.

The indemnities were ruinous.

Their whip-hand once light, the Seleucids were now forced to heavily tax their client states. Riots soon erupted the empire over -- and few were so violent as the Jewish rural poor: Per their wont, our potentates had fobbed much of Israel's tax burden off them, and they, finally, could stomach no more. And so when the Roman wolf at their door forced the Seleucids to clamp down, few populations were so aggressively pacified, Seleucid armies not only extinguishing whole villages but moving to destroy the traditionalist Judaism that was the wellspring of our countryfolk's strength. Eager to preserve Israel's international footing and, yes, their overweening privilege, our elites abandoned their country kin in the breach. Thus came Jerusalem to be razed. Thus came Hellenic idols to inhabit our Mikdash. Thus came the practice of our oldest masorot to be outlawed. Thus came the Hasmoneans, rural Levites of ancient, heralded lineage, to lead our long-suffering countryside into full blown revolt.

The first business of which was fratricide.

The Macabees indeed assayed guerilla attacks against Seleucid garrisons, but only as a distraction from the campaign they were prosecuting against our moneyed urbanites -- dragging merchants from their homes to be slaughtered in public squares, launching bloody lightning assaults on central markets; no other way to secure the Hellenic Jews' support than to ensure that they feared the Hasmoneans more than the empire, and, yes, years upon years of oppression and betrayal had to be repaid. Only once Judah, by then drenched in Jewish blood, had ruthlessly hammered our people into unity did he march against Antiochus to indeed secure the first truly independent Jewish kingdom in centuries and to found the Hasmonean dynasty.

Yet perhaps not entirely readied for the power they'd assumed and somewhat lacking the prodigious military-political gifts of Judah, who e.g. had deftly played our revolution off a concurrent Persian insurrection, the Hasmonean kings never fully effected a Jewish reconciliation. They were thus soon surrendering Israel to Rome on terms considerably less equitable than had been arranged with previous empires. Not long after Roman pressure would cause Israel to come apart at just the same seams as it had in the Seleucid days. This time, though, no Judah was forthcoming, and so we spiraled down into dreadful internecine strife which in turn, ushered in our millennia-long exile.

Full as much as Hanukah commemorates a brilliant Jewish renaissance, then, so too does it mark those black days in which the Jewish family would turn rabidly against itself.

So too does it whisper to us, weeping, of the more dreadful sunderings that were to come.

To be sure, then, we must rejoice in Hanukah -- just as we must ensure that the holiday's bright lights kindle within us a fiery determination, that'll burn on long after the menorah's re-shelving, to see that we never again tear ourselves apart thusly.
With our ancestral homeland once more becoming divided between a wealthy, cosmopolitan urban core and an impoverished, highly traditionalist "periphery" (and with this ancient division now complicated by ethnic tensions) no commitment could be more crucial.

A brief coda:
Their embrace of Hellenism brought our Alexandrine potentates to low, grasping betrayals yet also to make of Israel a financial promontory, to build glorious cities that'd draw deeply upon Greek and Jewish genius to bring forth shining art, science. Our traditionalists' unrefined statesmanship caused them to disastrously fumble the domestic and international leads Judah had left them, yet also to preserve, and the costs to themselves be damned, the diamantine spiritual core around which our people must forever cohere.

No one of the religious, political, ethnic blocs that will always form in our ranks can ever fully possess the keys to Jewish unity, ascension -- yet what if we came together, committing utterly to a profound, ongoing elenchus through which we'd jointly preserve our heritage; forge the political compromises that will allow us to act as one, in the breach; teach ourselves to accept, rejoice in the variations our peoples will ever play on the ancient theme all Jews are born singing? Stunned, still bleeding grievously from wounds inflicted as much by ourselves as by Hadrian, terrified lest we be lost to ourselves entire, even during the first moments of the Roman exile we set about evolving, assiduously cultivating, precisely this Grand Conversation -- and we owe much of the credit for Judaism's traversing of exile's crucible to precisely this cultivation.

Yet in too many ways, we've allowed this conversation to lapse.

Calling for is of course the least part of actually fostering Jewish solidarity. Set on accomplishing the latter, convinced this'll hinge on this conversation's revival, we'll be dedicating many of our posts to the matter. For now, though: consider dedicating Hanukah to the embrace of Jews of different stripes! Reform and Hasid dancing together; Ashkenazi and Persians swapping Shlishkes, Sufganiyot for Khoresh, Pirashki (the last adopted from Russian Jews in the course of e.g. mutual trade conducted in the century-old cities that once lay athwart the Silk Road), Moroccans and Yemenites tearing into Sfenj, harmonizing O Father Salim...How better to commemorate those long-ago triumphs and divisions than by joining hands to marvel at the many shades of the one light that -- and this is the true miracle --continues to shine through every Jewish heart.