Hanukkah, Herzl and the horror of Hellenization - opinion

For many Jews in the Diaspora, Hanukkah is just a “Jewish way” of celebrating what has been morphed into a rather bland “holiday season” universal experience.

 JEWISH REFUGEES from Ukraine celebrate the first night of Hanukkah on Sunday at a kosher shelter in Hungary. The holiday, says the writer, ensures that future generations will similarly be able to celebrate our traditions as Jews. (photo credit: Marton Monus/Reuters)
JEWISH REFUGEES from Ukraine celebrate the first night of Hanukkah on Sunday at a kosher shelter in Hungary. The holiday, says the writer, ensures that future generations will similarly be able to celebrate our traditions as Jews.
(photo credit: Marton Monus/Reuters)

A few weeks ago, I was at the book launch for the Library of the Jewish People’s inaugural publication, a three-part series on the complete writings of Theodor Herzl, expertly edited by Prof. Gil Troy. Last Shabbat, as I was reading through this super compendium of Herzl’s complete writings, I came across a piece he published in Die Welt on December 31, 1897, titled “The Menorah.”

Hanukkah had ended just four days earlier in 1897 (5658) and this seminal piece was Herzl’s first foray into writing about a Jewish topic. Ironically the Herzl home, both the one he grew up in, as well as the one where he was raising his own children, had a Christmas tree. This was not uncommon among assimilated Jews in Europe or North America in those days as it is today for many assimilated Jews the world over. 

For many Jews in the Diaspora, Hanukkah is just a “Jewish way” of celebrating what has been morphed into a rather bland “holiday season” universal experience watered down to be served to everyone. On the one hand, it’s all rather inclusive. On the other hand, it runs counter to the very reason we celebrate Hanukkah in the first place.

Hanukkah is supposed to be a day of Jewish victory over assimilation

Hanukkah is supposed to be a holiday that celebrates the Jewish victory over assimilation. It is also about the restoration of Jewish sovereignty, to ensure that future generations will similarly be able to celebrate our traditions as Jews, rather than as a mere ingredient in some other culture’s recipe for universalism.

When Herzl wrote the semi-autobiographical “The Menorah,” he began: “Once there was a man who deep in his soul felt the need to be a Jew… He had long ceased to trouble his head about his Jewish origin or the faith of his fathers, when the age-old hatred reasserted itself under a fashionable slogan. Like many others, our man, too, believed that this movement would soon subside. But instead of getting better, it got worse.”

“Once there was a man who deep in his soul felt the need to be a Jew… He had long ceased to trouble his head about his Jewish origin or the faith of his fathers, when the age-old hatred reasserted itself under a fashionable slogan. Like many others, our man, too, believed that this movement would soon subside. But instead of getting better, it got worse.”

Theodor Herzl

 THE LIGHT of Judaism must burn, no matter what winds of chaTHE LIGHT of Judaism must burn, no matter what winds of change or assimilation threaten it. (credit: David Cohen/Flash90) THE LIGHT of Judaism must burn, no matter what winds of chaTHE LIGHT of Judaism must burn, no matter what winds of change or assimilation threaten it. (credit: David Cohen/Flash90)

Herzl’s Vienna was much like today’s New York City – it was an international and cosmopolitan center that had a large Jewish and heavily assimilated community facing rabid antisemitism. Herzl saw first-hand at the Dreyfus trial, three years earlier, how an innocent and assimilated Jewish captain could be falsely accused of treason for no other reason than the fact that he was a Jew.

Dreyfus, of course, had shed the clothes of the shtetl, the haircut, no doubt the diet, and even the ghetto itself – in order to achieve acceptance in French society. For the Jews of the day, the offer was simple; leave behind the Jewish people and become “just” a religion and you will be treated as fully French.

While this policy was widely accepted at first, eventually the oldest hatred, “antisemitism,” struck back. By the time Herzl was lighting his own menorah, Europe was descending into a Jew-hatred that would reach its fulmination just half a century later.

WHAT WAS Herzl’s point in writing “The Menorah”? What was he saying about himself and what was he trying to teach others? As the story unfolds, a proud father realizes that no matter what Jews do, no matter how much they try to assimilate, they will never be accepted into conventional society. 

While most Jews of Herzl’s day saw the same situation and willingly took Napoleon’s offer to either convert or assimilate as an opportunity to leave behind the squalor and hopelessness of the ghetto, Herzl took a new direction.

As his protagonist concludes, one can not defeat antisemitism, so the only way forward was to embrace one’s Jewishness even more steadfastly. As Herzl kindled the Hanukkah lights with his family that year, much like the father in his own story, he felt renewed pride. It was the kind of pride that can only come from embracing one’s true essence. For Herzl, the way forward for the Jewish people largely rested on our ability to connect with and own our collective past.

As the winds of secularism blew strongly across Europe in the middle of the last century and today blow strongly in North America, many Jews are now facing the same conundrum. Like our ancestors who lived under the Hellenist Greeks during the time of the Hanukkah story about 2,200 years ago, we are faced with two options. Either gain access to society in general by assimilation (at the price of national annihilation) or embrace our heritage and our destiny and demand a seat at the table of nations as equals.

For today’s Hellenized Jews on college campuses, a new generation is being asked to state their loyalties. One need only stop supporting Israel and thus reduce themselves to being a “mere” religion in order to be accepted. Not doing so can earn one the opprobrium of being called a “PEP” (progressive, except Palestine) which is a surefire way to get uninvited to Hellenized campus society.

For Herzl, “the Menorah” is more than a metaphor. It lights a path forward for Jews willing to engage their heritage, even in the face of those who oppose it. He closes his missive with the following conclusion: “For our friend, the occasion became a parable for the awakening of a whole nation. First one candle – it is still dark and the solitary light looks gloomy. Then it finds a companion, then another, and yet another.

“The darkness must retreat. The young and the poor are the first to see the light. Then the others join in, all those who love justice, truth, liberty, progress, humanity and beauty. When all the candles are ablaze, everyone must stop in amazement and rejoice at what has been wrought. And no office is more blessed than that of a servant of this light.”

The writer is a 20-year veteran Hillel director in Pittsburgh and Orlando. He recently returned to Ra’anana with his wife to join their three children, who all made aliyah.