As a ferociously reluctant Yeshiva boy in the 1970s, I thought Hanukkah was without a doubt the most joyous time of the year. Unlike the four hundred and twelve other Jewish holidays that surround it on the Hebrew calendar, the festival of lights used to arrive like a life raft of optimism for any of us who felt Judaism had been crammed down our throats. And yes, of course, it too is a holiday that recalls an incident in which a mighty king decided that the Jews of the time were having too much luck or fun or prosperity. And yes, of course, this resulted in mass bloodshed throughout the streets of Judea. But unlike Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah, it was always made clear that the story behind Hanukkah held relatively little significance. And I appreciated that.
It was about a guy named Judah Maccabee and his four brothers and how they rebelled against King Antiochus because he ordered the chosen people to reject God and all their Jewish customs. After three years of gorging each other with spears and swords, the Maccabees won the war and the bad guys were forced out of Judea, which would become Israel. Judah and the boys reclaimed the Temple in Jerusalem and were granted a miracle of eight days of light from only one day's worth of oil. The result of the miracle for me was that my horrific school was closed for a week, a mountain of gift-wrapped boxes formed in my living room, Rudolph and Santa Claus were both on TV in Claymation form, and not once did anyone tell me to fast. Even my Moroccan-born yeshiva teachers were in good moods, showing us their miserable smiles for the first time since Purim. Hanuklah was good.
Each December when the Hanukkah winter break arrived, the principal, Rabbi Litsky, would hand us a gift as we got on the bus that Friday. I called them "Chocolate Jews," but they were Judah Maccabee-shaped candies wrapped in blue-and-white tinfoil. When you bit Judah's head off, he was hollow inside and you could wear him on your pinkie and lick him like a cocoa lollipop. What a holiday! No pestilence, no slavery, no locusts, no cattle disease or atonement. No synagogue, no guilt, no mortar, and no real lesson to be absorbed and passed down to my Jewish offspring. Thank God. Hanukkah was merely the blue team in the color war against the mighty red team, Christmas. We were smaller and got way less press, but who could deny that eight days of presents was oh so much better than one? All that buildup they had with the chimney and the cookies and the sleigh bells ringing and it was over in a New York minute.
But with all the obvious differences, I always thought the two holidays had quite a bit in common as well. Both were intended to be religious events but seemed less about God and more about the mall. Both had bearded men on their respective wrapping paper, both had just dynamite, knee-tapping songs written for them, and both were celebrations of truly brave Jews.
Hanukkah in our house also meant it was time to bring out the paper-mache replica of the Temple my mother made around the time I was born. I'll have to ask her what gave her the gumption to do this; she constructed a dollhouse, really, a miniature synagogue with a sanctuary and an arch with tiny Torahs and plastic Maccabees and little Hasidic men who came complete with tallises and long grey beards. I think the dome of the building was made of a Tupperware fruit bowl and the tan walls were cardboard, and I remember maroon carpeting and a stage with pulpits. In hindsight, there was no greater way for me to shed my frustration with the rituals of yeshiva life than to play with the Temple B'nai fruit bowl. I set up all the bad guys in battle formation, making them surround the synagogue with spears in hand. Then I removed the dome so I could reach inside the sanctuary and set up the Jews. Some of them were slump-shouldered and actually had sorrowful expressions on their faces, and to this day I have no idea where my mother found a toy store that sold sad, davening action figures. But she did. So the scenario was simple. The Jews want to pray, the bad guys want to kill and pillage, and the Maccabees want to protect the melancholy action figures. It was all about timing. My role was simple and I was very good at it: play God.
Luckily for me, I spent heaps of time in school learning how the almighty, blessed be He, handled things when he lost his temper. You had to first let the drama build. This meant the tiny Jews start their service. All they want to do is pray. Next, you need the bad guys to surround the Temple. After that, you need your Maccabees to get in slaughter formation. And lastly, with the bad guys ready to defend Judea, the war begins. Many die in the battle as God -- me -- looks down on yet another atrocity in the name of well, me. And that's when I step in. One by one I'd start lifting the bad guys by their itty bitty heads and hurling them across the living room. "Ahhhhh!", they'd scream as they flew and bounced and rolled under the sofa. My dog would chase them and sniff their plastic bodies. And in no time, the frightened worshippers inside the Temple would climb to their feet with the help of my mighty hand and once again continue with their prayers.
"Thank you, God," they'd say to me as they lifted their yarmulkes from the floor, dusting off their knees. I'd then reach in through the open dome and tap their heads with the tip of my thumb.
"You're welcome," I'd say in my best James Earl Jones voice. "Now cheer up and smile, for Christ's sake. It's Hanukkah!"