Festival of Confliction

I’ve always had a weird relationship with Hanukkah. First, it’s America’s biggest Jewish holiday, and even though I’m not that religious I always knew that it wasn’t Judaism’s biggest holiday. So it made me feel a bit odd. Second, and more importantly, I have mixed feelings about what we’re celebrating.

For those of you who don’t know the story, here it is, in brief: in the centuries after Alexander the Great’s conquests, the Eastern Mediterranean was divided up among several Greek successor states. One of these Greek successor states ruled the kingdom of Judah, where, since the Persian period, a Jewish theological state had ruled. The Greeks who came in brought all the good things about Greece, like gymnasiums and philosophy and statues, as well as the bad—like prejudice against ‘barbarians.’ The Jews were certainly barbarians—have you seen what they do to their penises?

Anyway, the Greeks do their best to suppress Jewish practices. They outlaw circumcision and establish pagan sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem. This is all bad, and the Jews revolt, eventually throwing the Greeks out of Israel and reestablishing a Jewish monarchy. And then there’s the whole thing with the lights and the oil but you all know that I’m sure.

The thing is, though, that the Jewish resistance, led by the Maccabees, doesn’t just attack the Greeks. It also attacks Jews, those Jews who were enticed by philosophy, art, and the whole of Greek culture. The first act of the rebellion was the killing of a Hellenized Jew who agreed to make a sacrifice to a Greek idol.

I’m one of those Hellenistic Jews. I don’t keep kosher. I study Greek philosophy. I go to the gymnasium (just got back, actually). I don’t like celebrating a holiday that is primarily about ultra-Orthodox right-wing Jews killing people like me who don’t really care that much about religion and think that Plato’s Symposium is the most beautiful thing ever written.

But then again, the history of the Jewish people, which leads to me, runs through the Maccabees. If they don’t rebel, the Jews probably go the way of every other little sect that gets absorbed into Hellenism. Which isn’t bad, per se—history doesn’t permit sentimentality—but it would be different. I probably wouldn’t be here.

So I’m a bit conflicted. Tonight, while the rabbi who lives across from me had a huge Hannukah party, I’m making a steak and watching the Lakers. I’m hoping we can have our own Hanukkah miracle—or at least not embarrass ourselves. But that’s unlikely. Kobe is currently 0-7.

Oh, and I just put butter on my steak. Take that, Maccabees!

© Henry Gruber 2013