Just a little something they asked me to do for In Montreal magazine
Miracles, shmiracles. Did you really think a magic menorah is reason enough for an entire holiday? Or that because of an enchanted jar of oil, we’ve inflicted generations of Jews with greasy latkes and donuts? If you did, you’re not alone; for a lot of us, the last time we thought seriously about Hanukkah was in fifth grade, when we wondered (and nagged) about what we’d get as a Hanukkah present. And even as we become adults, (and start to buy the gifts!), all we’re left with is an elementary school vision of Hanukkah, with lots of emphasis on presents, driedels and oil, oil, oil.
Hanukkah is an atypical holiday, and it certainly isn’t about oil. Other holidays commemorate God’s salvation of man; their story line is “they wanted to kill us, God saved us, let’s eat”. Hanukkah, however, is not about a monster who wanted to kill the Jews, nor is it about a singlehanded divine salvation. Rather, it’s a story about a culture that insists (and forces) the Jews to fit in and be like everyone else. (Unfortunately, many Jews did find it easy to drop their Judaism in order to advance). We celebrate Hanukkah because there were a determined few who insisted on living Jewish lives, no matter what the consequences. They are the heros of this story. Rather than being passive patsies, like the hogtied damsel on the train tracks waiting for Dudley Do Right, in this story we have Jewish heros proudly proclaiming their Jewish identity.
What Hanukkah is really about is Jews being proud of their Jewish identity. It’s about every Jew who’s stood up publicly and said “I am a Jew” despite enormous pressure to hide their heritage. Hanukkah celebrates the heros of Jewish identity, whether it be in the Seleucid empire, the former Soviet Union, or on the Concordia campus.
So what’s all the oil about? Well, if you risk your life and fight long battles to remain a Jew, and you finally get home and don’t have the oil you need to run the Temple, it’s nice to have a miracle to make things run smoothly. But even more importantly, it nice to get a pat on the back from God for a job well done, and know that God is rooting for us as we struggle to resist the enchantments of assimilation.