By now, midway through Hanukkah, many Jews are in sugar-shock. It’s not just the sufganiyot – the super-sweet donuts. The problem is the artificial sweetener injected into the heart of the holiday itself – epitomized by silly ditties celebrating spinning tops and flickering candles. Like Christmas, Hanukkah has been ‘jingleized,’ caricatured as a winter holiday of light with a ‘Disneyfied,’ romanticized, fight. Some balance comes from this Troy family favorite, Mattathias, written by Harry Coopersmith, the Viennese-trained music director of Chicago’s Congregation Anshe Emet, in 1940:
“He struck the traitor to the earth. He raised his sword that all might see. His words rang like a trumpet blast: ‘All who are faithful, follow me!’ From near and far all Israel came. They rallied to his battle cry. They prayed unto the God of peace. And for their Lord, went forth to die…
“To die – and yet today they live. O’er the cent’ries flowing seas! That trumpet blast – doo-doo-ta-doo! Hear that strong cry, ‘All who are faithful, follow me!’”
The martial melody, the words about swords, the faith in God, the struggle with life and death, are stirring. Merely 85 words affirm Hanukkah’s two overlapping struggles: the external fight for freedom against Jew-haters and the internal fight for identity against self-haters and self-doubt. Neither fight was pretty. What passion Mattathias and his Maccabean sons had! They understood that, in life, to appreciate anything you have to be willing to risk everything.
In 1981, the feminist writer Anne Roiphe rejected the pareve bloodless Judaism, the polite, rationalist, juvenile, universalist, saccharine-sweet Democratic-liberalism-with-Hanukkah-Seder-and-High-Holy-Days her New York friends were passing to their kids. Her confessional Generation without Memory lamented losing Judaism’s “mystery and drama, the terror of the burning bush, the excitement in the bondage of the covenant.”
A Judaism lacking “the tensions of the ancient ways, the closeness of primitive magic, the patina of the ages and the sense of connection to past and future…,” she feared, “will melt away in the heat of the barbecue on the patio, the light of the TV, the warmth of the variety of comforts now available.”
Roiphe paralleled Theodor Herzl’s journey ninety years earlier. As with the Maccabees, these Jews were not just activated by hating Jew-haters. Seeking meaningful anchors and guideposts, they were thrilled to discover them in their own, oft-neglected, heritage.
Herzl recognized the two-front battle too, saying that launching Zionism replicated the Maccabees’ war “against the enemy without and against the enemy within.”
Sometimes, “the enemy within” were the un-Jews of Herzl’s day: “The New Ghetto Jews” living in fancy surroundings yet embarrassed by their people, their heritage. Along with that, the “enemy within” remained the traumatized Jew, the compressed Jew, the ‘Yids’ who internalized the contempt surrounding them.
So many Jews had spent so long cultivating their brains and their souls but not their bodies. Herzl, the first Maccabean in two thousand years, had a spine too. Shortly before he died, Herzl echoed his friend Max Nordau’s cry for Muskularjudentum, a muscular Judaism. Herzl challenged young Viennese Jews, including his son Hans to “Train not only your minds but also your muscles. Be strong and stalwart! And study with zeal and enthusiasm. We shall need both your strength and your knowledge.”
Although, tragically, Herzl’s son could not rally to the battle cry, so many other young Israelis have ever since. Herzl’s ideological heirs are proud, passionate, smart, strong, literate and mission-driven. Many left-wing Israelis understand how to be patriotic critics, many right-wing Israelis understand how to be critical patriots. But Israeli Judaism also faces challenges – the too-ignorant often reduce it to juvenile gestures, while the super-pious exaggerate it into slavish actions.
President Isaac Herzog showed a muscular moderation, the dimensionality and depth we need, by lighting the first Hanukkah candle in Hebron, where his family reaches back five generations. While acknowledging “all the complexities,” Herzog affirmed “the historical affinity of the Jewish people to Hebron, to the Cave of the Patriarchs.” It is depressing to watch some Jews embrace every claim Palestinians make while ignoring basic historical truths, if they dare help the Jews. Peace will never be achieved by denying our ties – that’s mere surrender; at the same time, acknowledging our historic ties doesn’t determine what we should do in the future; historical ties need not be handcuffs.
Hanukkah’s popularity shows how easy it is for nonsense to chase out good sense. We can ‘latkefy’ Hanukkah – making it all about consumption, then the inevitable indigestion. Or, we can Judaize Hanukkah annually, doubling down on its meaning, understanding that rituals are like candies. Just as sweets can burden us with empty calories and cavities or add zing and fun to our lives when consumed in proper proportion, rituals risk becoming ends in themselves. They can be empty echoes of our parents’ habits or endless to-do lists tethering us to busywork.
At their best, rituals brighten our lives by serving as shorthand. Rituals carry magical, profound codes within them evoking the spirituality of Mattathias, the courage of Judah, the majesty of the Temple, the beauty of Israel, the elixir of freedom, the faith of President Herzog’s great-great-grandmother in Hebron, the wisdom of our ancestors and the vision of our leaders: our people’s values and ideals, memories and stories. May this Hanukkah not only be the holiday of lights – but the holiday of renewal and enlightenment, a challenging opportunity rekindling the light we find in our greatest inheritance – Judaism and the Jewish people.
The writer is a distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University, and the author of nine books on American History and three books on Zionism. His book, Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People, co-authored with Natan Sharansky was recently published by PublicAffairs of Hachette.