Middle Israel: Hanukka and the media crisis

Like seasoned advertisers, the sages made an effective sale by twisting the truth.

December 3, 2010 14:47
Maccabee facing Nikanor’s army, by Gustav Doré.

maccabee_521. (photo credit: Courtesy)

The sages could not possibly foresee TV, radio or even just billboard ads, but in their stated quest to “advertise the miracle” they still got right all of modern advertising’s essentials.

In ruling that the hanukkia’s candles should face the street and not be placed too high, lest their visibility be compromised, they foresaw the principle of the “sweet spot,” the modern advertiser’s quest to position an ad where it is most noticed. In ruling that the candles should not be lit after pedestrians clear the public domain, they foresaw the “prime time” concept. And in decreeing that the candles must not be lit even one minute before sunset, the sages provided an effective advertisement’s measure of contrast – in this case, between darkness and light.The link between Judaism and advertising is exclusive to Hanukka. No other tradition or duty is so obsessive with Judaism’s presence in the public sphere. The High Holy Days are marked within synagogues, the Pessah Seder happens in the depth of dining rooms, praying needs a quorum but is not meant to be seen or heard by anyone besides God, and the succa, while its ceiling can only be that distant from its own floor, can be as distant from the street level as a skyscraper’s rooftop, where no one will see it but pilots and birds.

Not Hanukka. This holiday, like advertising itself, came to the world in the wake of a competition and is designed to reclaim the Jewish public sphere, which had come under attack, first by Greeks, then by Romans and finally by Christians.

As advertisers, the sages were some 2,000 years ahead of their time.

Modern advertising not only crowds the public domain, it has come to define it, if not legally then at least atmospherically, for in our civilization places with no advertisements, like the sea, the desert, the North Pole and the moon, are invariably places the masses shun.

Unfortunately, the sages emulated modern advertising not only in its tactics, but also in its essence. Advertising is like the saleswoman who sprays us with perfume at a department store’s threshold while insisting that hers is the best, strongest and cheapest brand, not because it is any of that that, but because it is the one that paid her. Yes, not all advertising is manipulative, and historiography is never fully impartial. Yet advertising is out to provoke people’s senses rather than stimulate their minds, and while at it, if necessary, ignore the truth, and even twist it. That is also what the sages did with Hanukka.

THE TRUE Hanukka story is political and military. Like numerous other tales of national resistance, this one was about a clash between a regional power and the guerrillas who defeated it in a quest for independence. This is how the story was initially chronicled in I Maccabees, which was written in Hebrew in the decades immediately after the Hasmoneans’ victory.

And yet, several centuries later this entire historical setting was ignored by the Talmud, where the sages drowned one telegraphic quip about power, “The Hasmonean dynasty defeated the Greeks “ (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 21b), in a sea of laws about how to light Hanukka’s candles, which they now turned into the main thing about this holiday. Not only did the sages diminish the real story, they emerged with a story – that the original historiography did not mention – about a miraculous appearance of some missing jug of oil.

Why the sages suppressed Hanukka’s military side is unclear. Some suggested they were settling scores with the Hasmonean kings who later massacred religious scholars; others argued that they actually admired the Maccabees’ heroism, but were politically compelled to hide their nationalist sentiments; others noted that the sages did not read history and may have therefore innocently misunderstood the story of the Maccabees; and some noted that the Hasmoneans’ military action was belittled from the onset by the Jews of the Diaspora, as is evident in II Maccabees, which was written in Greek by a North African Jew called Jason of Cyrene.

What is clear is that beyond the midwinter warmth and the nighttime light in which the sages shrouded Hanukka lurked a story about swords, shields, helmets, daggers, arrows and spears crowding bloodstained battlefields that were quaking under the weight of combat elephants, phalanx battalions and thousands of casualties – an incredible commotion that took place right here, and which they, the sages, consciously or not, set out to replace, and perhaps suppress, with a tale about a jug of oil.

JUDGING BY the results, the sages’ visitation with advertising was ingenious. Not only did they get their message across, Hanukka’s candles now sprout in piazzas and storefronts the world over and illuminate gentile seats of power from the White House to the Kremlin.

And so, the question that the Talmud once asked rearises now with equal force: What is Hanukka? Is it Zionism’s celebration of Judea’s military victory over the Seleucid Greeks, is it the Diaspora’s commemoration of Judaism’s victory over Hellenism or is it about universal spirituality, light, doughnuts, dreidels and snowflakes, as American department store decorators contend?

Well, holidays are not the products of a committee’s brainstorming, but what the people make of them, and as such keep changing. That is what happened to Hanukka until now. What will happen to it next I wish I knew, but one narrow implication does cross my mind. It’s about journalism.

It is no secret that in recent years newspapers have reached the brink of collapse. Without getting into the details of this industrial crisis, suffice it to say that like Hanukka, this one, too, is about the troubled relationship between advertising and chronicling. For what has brought the newspaper to the brink of bankruptcy is what once made it rich: the ad. The half-a-trillion-dollar industry that financed journalism since the 19th century has now moved with the readers to the Web, and thus dehydrated the newspaper.

With newspapers as venerable as Le Monde taking government handouts, while the Chicago Tribune goes bankrupt, and with The New York Times’s share plunging in less than a decade from more than $50 to less than $8, it is time the writers of history’s first draft reconsider their product’s relationship with advertising. The formula has ceased to work. It was convenient while it lasted, but now it is only a matter of time until news organizations voluntarily end this unholy alliance, and start from scratch as nonprofits.

And once this is accomplished, perhaps a generation from now, tomorrow’s chroniclers and historians will look back and ask how their crafts, which seek to restore the truth, could ever have coexisted with advertising, which – as Hanukka attests – is prone to twist it.


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