The evolution of Hanukah
Every minority group in a free society is faced with a paradox: precisely because the society is open and accepting of its uniqueness, its uniqueness can easily give way to complete assimilation into the dominant culture.
In the United States today, where Jews enjoy full religious freedom, Jews grapple daily with the problem of how to maintain their unique culture while being fully acculturated into the broader, American society. Wanting to fit in, to be part of rather than apart from the host culture, for American Jews, wrestling with this dilemma is particularly pronounced at this time of year when Hanukah, which has come to include gift giving, comes so close to Christmas.
Historically, it was Purim, not Hanukah, on which gifts were traditionally exchanged, and while the Hanukah legend of a single day's supply of oil keeping the eternal lamp in the Temple lit for eight days, Hanukah is actually eight days long because of Succot. It was that holiday that was being celebrated during the siege that led to the oil shortage. Yet these two elements of American Jews' Hanukah celebrations - gift giving and the oil miracle - are emphasized in our celebration of Hanukah today.
Photo by Susan Safford
Alan Ganapol, a vice president of the Martha's Vineyard Hebrew Center (MVHC), says, "When the kids were young, we didn't want Hanukah to be just the Jewish Christmas, we wanted somehow to make it ours. So yes, we gave gifts, but we also lit a Moroccan replica Hanukiah [menorah], made latkes [potato pancakes], and also had sufganyiot [jelly donuts]. Eating foods fried in oil is traditional in both eastern and western celebrations of Hanukah, incorporating Sephardic, Jewish traditions into our celebration."
In the second century BCE (from when Hanukah is dated), Israel, then Judah, was under Greek rule. Jewish people there had a choice: assimilate or die. Some chose assimilation. Some chose to appear to assimilate but continued their Jewish observance in secret and at great peril. Others chose to rebel.
This could be the story of Jews in the Spanish Inquisition or in Germany in the 1930s, but it could also be the story of countless other cultures who, when conquered and faced with the extinction of their own culture, were faced with the same choices: the Serbs in the Austro-Hungarian Empire; the Mayans in Columbian Central America; the American Indian tribes after the European invasion; and the South Indians with the arrival of the Aryans.