What are we celebrating when we light candles? Presents, donuts, candles, family…what? Are we enjoying our assimilation into American culture where they have Christmas and we have Chanukah so we can see our family and get unwanted clothes (well, in my case, the only clothes that make me look presentable)? Or are we remembering a crucial moment in Jewish Identity history, when the fate of our people could go in two directions. Do we succumb to the Seleucid Empire and accept their customs or do we stay the people of one god and keep our traditions?
Where our story picks up, the Jewish people were having a problem. There was no strategic plan and the vision was lost. The massiveness and wealth of the Hellenistic Empire was rubbing off, and some Jews felt that the Jewish Priesthood was out of touch with new ideas. But Judah and his Maccabeus felt passionate about the preservation of our traditions. He probably thought what Herzl had believed many years later after the Dreyfuss Trial: no matter how much we assimilate, we will always be Jews. If we do not know our traditions or our history, who are we? And this question can lead to a new role for Hanukkah. I think these are the things that we should celebrate. We should ask ourselves, and talk to our friends and family about what will it mean to be Jewish in the future. What problems do we see and what can we do to change our internal problems within the Jewish leadership and how do we have better relations with outside communities?
Growing up in the wealthy suburbs of Boston, I always felt uncomfortable when Hanukkah time came around. I knew my rich Jewish friends would receive gifts every night and my rich non-Jewish friends would receive excessive gifts with the latest in technology, music and anything else you could possibly want. But in my house, Hanukkah was not considered to be the Jewish equivalent of Christmas. I could see the struggle my parents had. Do we assimilate into the Americanized version of Hanukkah and give our children gifts or do we help shape their identity and allow them to appreciate how they are different? As I got used to the fact that I was not going to get a lot of presents, I would quickly reply to my friends questions about what new gift I would not be playing with, “ well, Hanukkah is not that big of a deal in our house.” But now I understand the importance.
As young people who are shaping our identity and our relationship to Judaism, we have to find parts of the story that are relevant. This story has everything to do with not assimilating and is once again a lesson to be learned. Nobody Jewish should tell us how we should practice Judaism, while at the same time, we cannot practice our religion based on what everyone else is doing. The oil burning for eight days is a nice story, but let’s also talk about the story of a problem, discontent amongst our people, and ultimately, what makes us unique as a Jewish people?