Hanukkah: Feeling the spirit of a Jewish fight for freedom

Looking back on that Hanukkah, we should be both amazed at and appreciative of what major accomplishments the young nation had achieved.

 CHANUKAH WITH Judah Macabee and General Allenby in Jerusalem. Harris, M.M. Published by A.B. Schayer. Cincinnati, Ohio: 1918. Featuring US president Woodrow Wilson and his endorsement of a Jewish Homeland/Commemorating 2,000 Years of Jewish Liberation in the Land of Israel Hanukkah 165 BCE — 1917.  (photo credit: Courtesy Irvin Ungar / Historicana.com, szyk.com)
CHANUKAH WITH Judah Macabee and General Allenby in Jerusalem. Harris, M.M. Published by A.B. Schayer. Cincinnati, Ohio: 1918. Featuring US president Woodrow Wilson and his endorsement of a Jewish Homeland/Commemorating 2,000 Years of Jewish Liberation in the Land of Israel Hanukkah 165 BCE — 1917.
(photo credit: Courtesy Irvin Ungar / Historicana.com, szyk.com)

December 1949, the second Hanukkah of the State of Israel. In Gadna [the program that prepares young people for military service in the IDF], the leaders of that great youth movement felt there was a letdown in the “spirit” of their nation.

As a small country, Israel had to confront so many problems: sufficient food for the population, health issues, education. Most dramatic was to care for the large numbers of Jews making aliyah (immigrating) from the Arab countries. Looking back on that Hanukkah, we should be both amazed at and appreciative of what major accomplishments the young nation had achieved.

An Atlanta Jewish leader whom I knew well said to me: “David, you’d better plant as many trees as you can with Keren Kayemeth; at least Israel will have trees.” 

Hanukkah had always been a time even before the Mandate for infusing the population with the bravery of the Maccabees of old. Annually, it had become a tradition for a dramatic Hanukkah torch run from many cities, kibbutzim and moshavim. 

After 1948, there were two final destinations. The first was the Knesset (then at the San Remo Hotel in Tel Aviv), where Yitzhak Sprinzak, the first speaker of that august body, awaited the Gadna youth. The other was the procession to the site of ancient Modi’in.

 WOMEN IN Gadna proudly carry the torches from Hanukkah marathon.  (credit: COURTESY DAVID GEFFEN) WOMEN IN Gadna proudly carry the torches from Hanukkah marathon. (credit: COURTESY DAVID GEFFEN)

The “run” began in Tel Hai, where the torch was raised high by a young Yemenite Jew who had made aliyah three months previously. Then an additional torch was lit in Degania and passed on at other sites in the North before being carried to Tiberias. Next on to Haifa, where a boat was filled with torch bearers as they sailed to Tel Aviv. Onward to Netanya, where the mayor welcomed them. Then what excitement: The pilots flying above lit their torch, dropping it near the Knesset.

The commander of this Gadna event was given a torch that had been lit in Eilat early in the day. Now the Knesset was reached. After Sprinzak was presented with eight torches, initiated in Tel Hai, it was time to light a mammoth hanukkiah on the grounds of the Knesset. How brightly did it shine. Not to be forgotten, the torches were brought to the Rehovot home of Israel’s first president, Chaim Weizmann.

Excitement reigned in Jerusalem, awaiting the next moment of triumph. Both the victory of the Maccabees of ancient days and that of the nation of Israel were felt with such excitement. The eight Gadnaites climbed Mount Herzl, where only four months earlier in August had the remains of Theodor Herzl been re-interred.

The citizens of Jerusalem stood in pouring rain, cheering loudly. The rest of the country listened to the radio to hear the description of the giant hanukkiah being lit and the ascension of Mount Herzl – dreams come true. The joy of Israelis and Jews all over the world stamped Hanukkah 1949 as one to remember always.

A photograph of two women soldiers, each proudly holding a torch aloft, could poignantly be seen on the back cover of the Hanukkah issue of the IDF’s weekly magazine for soldiers Bamahaneh (In the Camp), where I was indeed fortunate to have been able to discover that celebration of Hanukkah.

Hanukkah in the United States

NOW TO another land, the United States, where in the 1880s, the poetess of the Statue of Liberty, Emma Lazarus, stirred the hearts of American Jewry. In 1882 she rekindled the spirit of her fellow Americans through her poem “The Banner of the Jew.”

Wake, Israel, wake! Recall today

The glorious Maccabean rage,

The heroic, hoary-gray

Awake my sisters and brothers.

In June 1949, the noted Magic Carpet Mission began, ultimately bringing 50,000 Yemenite Jews to Israel. By the time of Hanukkah that year, there was a feeling of excitement in the country, but the question dramatically being asked was “How will we care for our new citizens?” For its Hanukkah ad, Shemen, a company that sold cooking oil, had a local artist draw an image of a Yemenite family leaving the plane to walk on the soil of Eretz Yisrael. That image has become iconic. 

An important biblical verse is woven into the ad. The rest of the wording emphasizes how the Yemenites left in darkness and found the light of their homeland.

Another ad featured that year was from a company called Nes Yizhar. A Hanukkah menorah was graphically created from the bottles of that product. Each of the eight candle holders and the shamash (lighting candle) had a description of the various uses of the products.

NOW WE turn to the evolving observance of Hanukkah in the US.

“Give me liberty – or give me death.”

Patrick Henry

“Give me liberty – or give me death” is the statement of the noted American Revolutionary War figure Patrick Henry. In a Hanukkah story for Jewish children in the mid-1800s, Rabbi Max Lillenthal utilized Henry’s statement as an exhortation from Matthais when the Maccabean revolt begins. 

Prof. Diane Ashton in her outstanding book Hanukkah in America emphasized how rabbis and other Jewish educators in the 19th century transformed the holiday. It was felt that American Jews needed a sense of pride.

Through the Hanukkah story, as a victorious military tale, it seemed possible to awaken American Jews and help them focus on a minor holiday as a major statement on the identity of the Jews. Such a format for the Festival of Lights worked well.

Since the ancient rabbis were puzzled about the holiday, their initial question “Ma (what is) Hanukkah?” can be found in the first Talmudic discussion of the holiday. That query has given Jews throughout the centuries the right to add different meanings to the various stories underlining the Hanukkah celebration. 

We learn: There are the lights burning miraculously for eight nights, the rededication of the Temple sanctuary, the heroism of the Maccabean fighters. Then, added as well, is the required recitation of the Hallel prayer for eight days and special readings of the Torah on each day. Both of these rituals have raised the religious status of the holiday.

For American German Jews, much earlier, their answer to reviving the observance of the holiday of Hanukkah began to take on new “trappings” in the period of the 1840s and 1850s, just before the Civil War.

Ashton emphasizes how Christmas gift giving, even Hanukkah bushes in comparison to Christmas trees, literally forced the rabbis to take steps to make children and adults observe their own holiday of lights.

When Eastern European Jews started to arrive in the US in the 1880s, it was a different story: They had always observed the holiday at home.

Prof. Andrew Heinze quoted the following in his book Adapting To Abundance. “A view of the Lower East Side in the 1890s showed that Hanukkah had survived the shocks of immigration. During that time, passengers on the Second Avenue ‘El’ [L] train heading down toward 1st Street in the darkness of a December evening were struck by the rows of burning candles that illuminated the windows of tenement after tenement house.”

However, by the Hanukkah season of 1897, the downtown Yiddish press made reference to changes in the holiday observance among Eastern European Jews. Heinze continues quoting from a Yiddish paper: “The tendency has been of late years to celebrate the festival quite generally, only it is given over for the most part to the little ones.” The children had to keep it alive. 

He seeks to understand another essence of the holiday, when he writes that “the Jews, too, even in our day, must have an occasion for merry-making – and here it is.” 

AFTER THIS focus on the US Ashkenazi Hanukkah, let us turn back to the continuing analysis of the holiday in the mid-19th century. While Ashton emphasized the revival of Hanukkah in the 1850s, she stresses how the wide-ranging observance of Christmas throughout America influenced the rabbis. They were desirous of providing an outlet, the Hanukkah holiday, for the children and their families. 

The giving of gifts became an essential part of the holiday – even though Jews had generally only given shalach manot (sending of portions) gifts on Purim. The Hanukkah observance was basically synagogue centered or in large, almost theatrical presentations, where families, especially children, would gather to celebrate in public. Gradually, the lighting of the menorah at home became a part of a family’s tradition.

A new element, added in America during the Civil War, was the Hanukkah Ball. Prof. Ron Rubin has located a wonderful description of one such event in The New York Times, in an article dated December 12, 1863. He reproduced the complete article in his book Strangers and Natives. The cannons were roaring that year, but a charitable Hanukkah masquerade ball offered a wonderful evening.

Rubin explains the article and throws light on some of the points made by this important newspaper. After noting that unlike Paris, New York City does not yet observe the delightful institution of the masquerade, the article makes our sisters and brothers feel good. “Praise was given to a portion of our community that does not always receive credit for the good it accomplishes.” What a literary coup found by Rubin!

Prof. Jonathan Sarna has pointed out that “the masks imply that they were hiding! In the Civil War, richer Unionists paid others to go to war for them. The fighting never reached New York, so the situation is quite different from the Confederate capital, Richmond.” Then he joyfully says further: “I agree that these Purim and Hanukkah balls are fascinating.”

The text of the Rubin article continues. “For the last two years [Purim] has been well commemorated in this City by grand masquerades, the last given at the Academy of Music during March 1863, being the most brilliant social gathering witnessed here for many years,” Rubin notes, adding that “the grand Purim masquerade held the previous two years emboldened them to hold one on the holiday of Hanukkah.”

The Civil War provided such personal agony and deaths galore on the fighting fields, which the US had never seen and hopefully will never be seen again. Certainly, the Jews wanted to demonstrate to the Christians that they were not the only ones who could show off in public and raise funds for the needy. The public newspapers back then told the story of those Jews quite well.

THE MAIN symbol of the holiday, the Hanukkah menorah, was initially a clay lamp lit in the first century CE, some of which have been discovered. The creation of the Hanukkah menorah became an art form in the Middle Ages when it was fashioned from silver and other precious metals.

In pre-Israel days, the Bezalel School of Art made Hanukkah lamps to be sold. Inventive hanukkiyot began to appear in the 1930s. In particular, after the military triumphs of the country, Bezalel fashioned menorot with soldiers and sailors holding the cups for candles aloft.

The fashioning of menorot of every style has become unstoppable for artists, amateurs and schoolchildren. As long as there are places for the candles, the menorah is “kosher.” The folk art menorot from rifle butts, used shells, driftwood and clay have inspired many Jews who previously were not interested in Jewish ritual.

Chag urim sameach – Happy Festival of Lights – to one and all.  

The 1917 image showing Judah Maccabee and general Allenby is not well known. Noted collector Irvin Ungar of California has loaned a copy of it to illustrate the excitement felt over 100 years ago in Jerusalem.