Tonight, Hanukkah begins. The word — Hanukkah — is lovely, but what’s the festival itself for? What does it do?
As a rule, Jewish holidays are marvelous affairs. Passover relates the great narrative of the Jewish flight from Egypt in a form that lends itself to rumbustious family dinners — those who want to recite every word of it in Hebrew contesting with those who want to get it over and done with expeditiously in English, but everybody coming together in exaltation to visit boils and locusts on the ancient Egyptians.
Purim gives us a pantomime villain in Haman the Jew-murderer and the chance to eat hamantaschen, the delicious little fruit and poppy-seed pastries, spiced with anger and made in the shape of the scoundrel’s dastardly three-cornered hat. Food and vengeance: that’s what you want from a festival.
And of course Rosh Hashana tolls the bell of the preceding year, each day pregnant with the sins we hope to expiate on Yom Kippur, on our knees to the fearful mountain God of the Torah. Food, vengeance, terror and guilt.
Everyone knows the bare bones of the story. At Hanukkah we celebrate the Maccabees, also known as the Hasmoneans, who defeated the might of the Syrian-Greek army in 165 B.C., recapturing the desecrated Temple and reconsecrating it with oil that ought to have run out in a day but lasted eight. Indeed, Hanukkah means “consecration,” and when we light those candles we are remembering the re-dedication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.
But how many Jews truly feel this narrative as their own? I’m not asking for contemporary relevance. History is history: whatever happens to a people is important to them. But Hanukkah — at least the way it’s told — struggles to find a path to Jewish hearts.
Those Hasmoneans, for example …. The Maccabees are fair enough: they sound Jewish. Scottish Jewish but still Jewish. There was a sports and social club called the Maccabi round the corner from where I was brought up in North Manchester, and as a boy I imagined the Maccabees as stocky, short-legged, hairy men like the all-conquering Maccabi table tennis team. But “Hasmoneans” rang and rings no bells.
Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that Hanukkah doesn’t draw on events described in the Hebrew Bible. The Book of Maccabees, from which the story comes, is in the Apocrypha, the non-canonical, more esoteric books of sacred scripture. There’s a reason it never made it out of there: I won’t say it’s spurious, but it doesn’t quite feel authentic.
Isn’t there something a touch suspicious, for example, about our defeating the Syrian-Greek army? It lacks equivocation. Escaping from bondage in Egypt by dint of magic and smart talk is comprehensible: Exodus played to our strengths. Similarly, Esther — who had married out of the faith, remember — turning the tables on Haman. In our best stories, we lose a little to gain a little. We use our heads. Trouncing the Syrian-Greeks sounds worryingly like wish fulfillment, and the story of the oil that should have run out after one day actually lasting eight feels too much like parable.
I’m not suggesting that lighting the candles isn’t fun. A menorah can be beautiful and calling the ninth candle — with which, in ascending order, you light the other eight — the “shamash” has a nice edge of wit to it. A “shamash” is a servant, usually the person who looks after the synagogue, and there is something about personifying this humble candle as a beadle that amused me as a child. There is even a lesson in it: sometimes we do not burn for ourselves alone. But then again you don’t want that to turn into one of those excruciating rabbinic banalities that Hanukkah encourages because there is so little else for the rabbi to talk about.
I’d like it if we had better songs to sing at Hanukkah, too. Something to rival the Christmas oratorios or passions, the hymns, the carols, the cantatas, Bing Crosby even. But all we ever sang was “Maoz Tzur,” compared to which “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” seemed musically complex.
And there’s another way — for it is supposed to be a children’s festival, after all — in which Jewish children celebrating Hanukkah feel short-changed alongside their Christian friends gearing up for Christmas. The presents. Or rather, the lack of presents. No train sets or roller skates for Hanukkah, no smartphones or iPads. Just the dreidel, the four-sided spinning top with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet on each surface.
How many years did I feign excitement when this nothing of a toy was produced? The dreidel would appear and the whole family would fall into some horrible imitation of shtetl simplicity, spinning the dreidel and pretending to care which character was uppermost when it landed. Who did we think we were — the Polish equivalent of the Flintstones?
The cruel truth is that Hanukkah is a seasonal festival of light in search of a pretext and as such is doomed to be forever the poor relation of Christmas. No comparable grandeur in the singing, no comparable grandeur in the giving, no comparable grandeur in the commemoration (no matter how solemn and significant the events we are remembering), in which even the candles are small and burn out pretty much the minute you light them.
In countries that turn snowy in December, Christmas has been brilliantly marketed. We see the baby Jesus shivering in his wintry crib, admire the twinkling lights in the Norwegian pines, and go out on to the snow on the new toboggan Santa brought us. It’s of a piece.
Compared to this, no matter how conscientiously we go on reinventing Hanukkah for the electronic age, exchanging animated Hanukkah messages by e-mail and sending one another links to Hanukkah YouTube videos, those Hasmoneans — who sound too hot for this time of the year — don’t have a chance of engaging our imaginations.
So what’s to be done? Either Hanukkah should merge with Christmas — a suggestion against which the arguments are more legion even than the Syrian-Greek army — or it should be spiced up with the sort of bitter irony at which the Jewish people excel. Instead of the dreidel, give the kids their own cars for Hanukkah, in memory of the oil that should have run out but didn’t.
Maybe we should also dedicate each candle to one of the more recent narrow escapes of Jewish history. The Spanish Inquisition candle. The Russian Pogroms candle.
I’ve seen it argued, too, that those Christmas doughnuts that Germans call “Berliners” in fact are direct relations of the oily cakes and fritters Jews bake at Hanukkah to celebrate “the miracle of light.” That Hanukkah would thus have gone on being unknowingly remembered in Germany even when all the Jews had gone from it is a victory of sorts. I’d light two candles to that.
Howard Jacobson, the author of The Finkler Question which won this year’s Man Booker Prize.