My earliest memories of celebrating Chanukkah as a child include the usual eating of latkes, lighting the Menorah and playing dreidel. But I also remember my father, someone with a strong Jewish identity but not especially observant of Jewish practices like Shabbat or Kashrut, putting up a large Jewish star decorated with aluminum foil and blue and white bulbs on the front of our house during the holiday. I’m quite sure that he kept our Chanukkah “decorations” up until the end of the Christmas season, regardless of when in December Chanukkah fell. One reason for this display was certainly the fact that we lived in a neighborhood that had very few Jews, and most of the families around us had little or no understanding of Judaism. I doubt that my father had any educational objectives in mind by putting up Chanukkah decorations. Perhaps he did it to rival the elaborate Christmas lights on our neighbors’ homes. But mostly I think he was interested in expressing his Jewish identity and pride in his heritage to the families around us. It’s remarkable that he wanted to do this, given that he experienced a fair amount of anti-Semitism growing up in Chicago and as a soldier fighting in the Second World War. But apparently my father entered adulthood with his Jewish identity, and feelings of Jewish pride, intact.
The idea of pride in being Jewish lies at the heart of the Chanukkah story. The Chanukkah tale that we carry with us, the one about God enabling the Maccabees to win an unlikely victory over the forces of tyranny and reclaim and rededicate the Temple to the service of God, and the miracle of the small cruse of oil lasting for eight days when it should have lasted for only one, is charming but historical fiction. It emerged centuries after the actual events of Chanukkah took place as an alternative understanding of the origins of the holiday offered by the Talmudic sages who, having witnessed thousands of Jewish people killed in a war with Rome, were reluctant to inspire another generation of Jews to fight another war by recounting the military prowess of the Maccabees. The actual story is centered on political and religious factors that were in play in the land of Israel around 165 B.C.E. In brief, the Chanukkah story is about a political struggle over control of the High Priesthood and a social struggle about how to live as Jews, both of which escalated into a civil war and finally into a full-fledged revolution against colonial authority (for a concise history of Chanukkah see Ron Wolfson’s Hanukkah: The Family Guide to Spiritual Celebration). The civil war that erupted was waged between Jewish “Hellenists” (those who favored the abandonment of outward signs of Jewish identity and assimilation into Greek culture) and those who opposed assimilation out of the fear that Jewish identity would be entirely obliterated. While Chanukkah is certainly about freedom from tyranny, it is also about our willingness to be who we are and carry around a feeling of pride in our religious identity.
The way we are supposed to light the Menorah reflects this idea. After lighting the candles the Menorah is supposed to be placed in a window where it can be seen by passersby, in fulfillment of the mandate to “proclaim the miracle of Chanukkah” (Pirsum Ha-Neis in Hebrew). In the Old City of Jerusalem, many of the homes have built in to the stone façade a box with a clear plastic door meant to house the Menorah during the eight days of Chanukkah (a safer alternative to putting burning candles next to a window that could have cloth curtains). The Menorah is supposed to face out so that passersby will see the candles loaded from right to left. Some place an electric Menorah in the window to fulfill this mitzvah safely. The mitzvah of Pirsum Ha-Neis is in no way evangelism or encouragement to others to either celebrate Chanukkah or proclaim faith in God. Rather, it is simply meant to be an expression of pride in Jewish history and Jewish values.
Chanukkah reminds us that religious freedom is a right, not a courtesy bestowed by those in power. The victory of the Maccabees reminds us that tyranny is the enemy of good and decent society, and that intolerance toward the rights of others diminishes all human beings. But Chanukkah also reminds us to have pride in our Jewish identity, to resist feeling that we ought to hide what we believe and what we do as Jews out of apprehension that others may not approve or understand. Whenever I need to make an appointment or arrange for some type of service and I’m offered a Friday night or a Saturday, I will quickly respond by saying that I’m Jewish and Sabbath observant and require an appointment that’s at a different time. Those who know that I’m a rabbi might assume that those restrictions apply only to me, but it’s certainly feasible for any Sabbath observer to say the same thing. Demonstrating a sense commitment to our religious practice is a way of demonstrating pride in our Jewish identity. This is a message that especially our children need to hear.
I am Jewish, and proud of it. Are you?