Man, we Jews have it rough. No one knows a thing about our religion.
On a trivia quiz this week on NBC's Today Show where I was the guest expert, a contestant was asked, "True or False. Hanukkah celebrates the Jews having found a loaf of bread in the Temple that lasted eight days." She responded, "True."
Now even non-Christians know about Jesus miracle with the five loaves of bread that fed 5,000 people. But we Jews get such a bum rap that we're now associated with a single stale loaf of ancient bread that we decided to celebrate.
Why should non-Jews know something about Hanukkah other than lit candles and greasy latkes? Well, let me use the WikiLeaks scandal as a springboard.
What struck me most about the WikiLeaks diplomatic dump was the discovery that the whole world operates on fraudulence. The United States smiles at Putin and says we want to push 'Restart' on our relationship with Russia. But behind the scenes we are calling him a lazy slacker with a terrible work ethic who has billions of dollars stashed away.
The same of Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan. We love you, we tell him to his face. But behind the scenes we're sending cables to Washington about how corrupt he and his family are and how they have enriched themselves at the expense of the people. The worst offenders, it seems, are the Arab rulers who feign Islamic unity in public but beg the United States to wipe out the Iranian regime behind closed doors. It seems that diplomacy truly is a game of smoke and mirrors.
Not that any of us should be surprised. Most of modern life is about leading a double identity and being two-faced. We smile at employers but curse them beneath our breath. We make dinner for a spouse but often secretly loathe living with them and wish we didn't. Our teen kids tell us they love us and feel close to us but in their hearts they believe we will never understand them. Our politicians speak about civility and national unity but do everything in their power to demonize the other party and blame all of America's ills on their opponents.
The particular psychosis of the modern world is its two-facedness, where we are intimate with no one and play games with everyone. We are even duplicitous with ourselves. Our deepest yearning is to love and be loved. Yet we spend most of our time in a narcissistic orgy of material indulgence characterized by career and money obsession.
Was there a time when we were more authentic?
One of the reasons I love being an American, especially after having lived in Europe for eleven years, is that two centuries ago we told a British monarch to go shove it. We could easily have paid him lip service. We could easily have feigned loyalty. Taxes back then, although they were considered oppressive, were an absolute fraction of what we pay now. We could have come to a compromise with George III and everyone could have pretended to get along. We could have curtsied, "Your majesty," and then prayed under our breath for him to be hit by lightning.
But Americans were rejecting not George III but European fraudulence. They knew that the idea that one man was born royal and superior to everyone else was a lie. They felt in their bones that one guy calling himself a Duke and looking at others as peasants was a scam. And they weren't prepared to live with this racket. So they cast the yoke of Britain from them so they could live according to their convictions.
A people yearning to live authentically had its most celebrated ancient roots in the story of Hanukkah where a tiny nation that was different to all others was forced to live a fraudulent existence in order to blend in. Alexander the Great had imposed Hellenistic paganism on the world's civilizations. The Assyrian-Greeks sought uniformity in their empire, the more easy to govern. But the Jews believed in one G-d. They believed that there was an underlying unity to all creation no matter how different everything appeared. The Greeks forbade the Jews to practice their faith at the pain of death. the Jews could easily have faked it. Dress like a Greek. Pray like a Jew. Philosophize like Plato. Worship like Moses. Who was to know? It was a choice that many Jews would make a millennia and a half later under the inquisition in Spain. They would be maranos, Catholic on the outside but Jewish on the inside.
But the inhabitants of ancient Israel couldn't bring themselves to do it. They knew that the one freedom that every human being has that dare never be compromised is the freedom to be true to yourself. The freedom to live genuinely, according to the dictates of conscience. And if you have to fight and die just to be you then pick up a spear and defend your freedoms. But never allow another man to force you to live a lie. So they fought and were somehow victorious against the toughest armies in the world. Because no force on earth is strong enough to make you into something you don't want to be.
As you drive by a public square with a Menorah this year, think back to the Maccabees. They were not bakers and they didn't split a loaf of bread. Less so were they natural warriors. Rather, they were people like you and me who believed that no man should control how they prayed and what they taught their children. And when they won their war they did not gloat in their victory but rather lit candles to illustrate that every human being has a light inside him by which he can illuminate a dark world, so long as he never conforms his own brightness by trying to fit in.
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