Filming Jewry’s greatest stories


Hollywood was largely founded by Jews, who to this day constitute a large percentage of America’s mainstream filmmaking community. Perhaps more than anywhere else, Jews are conspicuously powerful in the moviemaking industry and have been since its inception over a century ago.

Consider our Jewish screenwriters, whose outstanding talents emerged and/or flourished in every decade in the last hundred years:

In the 1920s, Ben Hecht (The Front Page); in the 1930s, Robert Riskin (It Happened One Night) and Julius J. & Philip G. Epstein (Casablanca); in the 1940s, Adolph Green (Singin' in the Rain), Melvin Frank (White Christmas), and Lillian Hellman (The Little Foxes); in the 1950s, Ernest Lehman (The Sound of Music), I. A. L. Diamond (Some Like It Hot), Budd Schulberg (On the Waterfront), Norman Corwin (Lust for Life), and Paddy Chayefsky (Network); in the 1960s, William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid); in the 1970s, Woody Allen (Annie Hall); in the 1980s, Lawrence Kasdan (Raiders of the Lost Ark), Lowell Ganz & Babaloo Mandel (City Slickers), Nora Ephron (When Harry Met Sally), Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (The Remains of the Day), and Robert J. Avrech (A Stranger Among Us); in the 1990s, Aaron Sorkin (A Few Good Men), Akiva Goldsman (A Beautiful Mind), and Joel & Ethan Coen (O Brother, Where art Thou?); and in the 2000s, David Benioff (Troy) and Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation).

These are perhaps Hollywood's most noteworthy Jewish screenwriters, though they are hardly all of them. Moreover, the abundance and ability of Jewish studio executives, producers, directors, performers, agents, and managers are similarly impressive throughout Hollywood’s history.

It is therefore all the more confounding that an overwhelming majority of the Jewish People’s greatest tales have yet to be given the full silver screen treatment.

An objective observer would perforce conclude that, according to Hollywood, there have been just two seminal events in 4,000 years of Jewish history: the Exodus (our greatest triumph) and the Holocaust (our greatest trauma), with nothing doing in between. Both the Exodus (c. 1250 BCE) and the Holocaust (1933-1945) are historic events of the first magnitude and obviously deserve telling and retelling. But these are far from the only dramatic episodes in the raveled scroll of Jewish history, and it would be a tremendous disservice to our collective heritage and identity to focus solely on them to the exclusion of many other dramas worthy of their own limelight.  

What rationales account for this glaring reluctance to produce Jewry’s many remarkable stories? Two explanations come to mind, one psychological and the other commercial: a) the Jewish filmmaking community’s desire to downplay its influence in Hollywood; b) profitability concerns.

From a communal perspective, the first issue is a real problem. Dead or suffering Jews have never lacked onscreen depiction; living Jews—let alone proud, traditional, thriving Jews—haven’t fared anywhere near as well. This pathological fetishization of victimhood—appeasement through displays of weakness—is a salient aspect of the exile mentality. Diasporic Jews are only ever supposed to be persecuted and oppressed, never strong, confident, heroic, or patriotic. Never victors.

Thus, if actual Jews succeed and attain prominence, they instinctively yet misguidedly seek to minimize this earned feat by emphasizing the helplessness and misery in Jewish history, as repeatedly portrayed on the big screen.

This is a key factor which helps explain why the saga of the Maccabees, for instance, has been indefensibly deprived of filmic rendering. It took Mel Gibson, of all people, just to get their story in development (ultimately to no end). Naturally, for authenticity’s sake, a people’s greatest stories should be told by its own members, and not forsaken by them so as to be culturally appropriated by outsiders. Orphaned narratives may be adopted by unsympathetic caretakers.

But the Maccabees’ story is only one among very many awaiting the cinematic spotlight. What about the eventful reigns of Hezekiah or Josiah, or the transformational Babylonian Captivity, or the momentous struggles of Ezra and Nehemiah to rebuild the Jewish state, or the legendary and faraway Khazar kingdom? Where are the compelling biopics about Queen Helena of Adiabene, Meir Baal HaNess, Saadia Gaon, Rashi, Bishop Bodo, Nahmanides, Pablo Christiani, Don Isaac Abravanel, Joseph Karo, Isaac Luria, the Maharal of Prague and the Golem, Shabbetai Zvi, the Baal Shem Tov, the Vilna Gaon, Moses Montefiore, Henrietta Szold, Hannah Szenes, or lovebirds David and Paula Ben-Gurion, to cite but a sample?

To be perfectly clear, these stories should be told neither because of the strident self-centeredness of identity politics, nor for propaganda, nor to meet any Jewish content quota in the movie marketplace, but simply because they are captivating and memorable stories that deserve mass audiences.

A few historical Jewish films (non-Exodus, non-Holocaust) have managed to surpass the Hollywood gauntlet over the decades, most notably Samson and Delilah (1949), David and Bathsheba (1951), Solomon and Sheba (1959), Esther and the King (1960), Norman Corwin’s The Story of Ruth (1960), Melville Shavelson’s Cast a Giant Shadow (1966), King David (1985), and One Night with the King (2006), although several of these were generated outside of Jewish Hollywood and all of these generally represent exceptions to the rule. They also tend to revisit the same Jewish personages to the exclusion of myriad others never represented in feature films.

As for the question of profitability—the primary concern of commercial producers—precedents proving financial viability exist, validating the further production of Jewish stories. Among the major Jewish stories that have been filmed, The Ten Commandments (budget: $13 million/domestic gross: $80 million), Schindler’s List (budget: $22 million/worldwide gross: $321 million), The Prince of Egypt (budget: $70 million/worldwide gross: $218 million), Munich (budget: $70 million/worldwide gross: $130 million), and Exodus: Gods & Kings (budget: $140 million/worldwide gross: $268 million), for example, convincingly attest to the lucrative possibilities.

Until Jewry’s untold tales are given their due, Jewish Hollywood will be unjustifiably marginalizing its own and perpetuating excessive self-effacement, missing opportunities in so doing.

Until then, Jews the world over will continually hope for the cinematic recognition of their rich heritage, and privately wonder of their kindred in Hollywood, “Ayekah? Where are you?”

Maccabean dream or Hasmonean nightmare? (Chanukah 5776)


In 1972, during Richard Nixon’s visit to China, Premier Zhou Enlai was asked what he thought about the French Revolution. He responded, “Too early to tell”. His answer is celebrated to this day as an illustration of the supposed Chinese ability—and the Western need—to take the long view of history.

In fact, Enlai wasn’t really being so philosophical; he had simply misunderstood the question. He thought he was being asked about the French student revolts of 1968, the effects of which were still reverberating in capitals across Europe.

But don’t worry; Jews never needed Zhou Enlai to take the long view of history. For our people, ancient history is still playing out; it molds our values, and it affects our understanding of the modern world. History and present are two inseparable parts of one long adventure whose denouement we are still expecting.

This seamless flow of Jewish history was much in my mind this week, because Enlai’s unintentional warning against haste in judgment is particularly relevant when it comes to Chanukkah. Beyond the candles, the dreidels, and the artery-clogging foods, Chanukkah brings us a complicated and contradictory story that defies easy evaluation.

I grew up believing that Chanukah told an epic story of freedom. I believed, together with Howard Fast, that it was “the first modern fight for freedom”. For me, the Maccabees were romantic and idealistic warriors, wise democratic leaders willing to give their lives for tolerance and for the right of all people to worship and live as they chose. I imagined the Maccabees as an improbable combination of Che Guevara, John F. Kennedy, and Abraham Joshua Heschel. 

And Chanukah was indeed all that. The Maccabees were the original “band of brothers” who defied insurmountable odds and challenged a mighty empire to reclaim their right to be different, to live independently as masters of their own destinies. They sought Jewish rule for nobody but the Jews; they didn’t want to impose their ways on anybody else. They only wanted peace and respect for all. It’s an inspiring, ever-relevant tale, and it fills me with pride that it was my people who first fought for these values.

But, as I later learned, this is only one face of the Chanukah story. Viewed from another angle, Chanukah is an ugly story of zealotry, civil war, abuse of power, and eventual ruin.

The Maccabees weren’t only fighting the Seleucid army—they were fighting other Jews, namely the mityavnim, those Jews who had adopted the Greek language and Hellenistic customs. In other words, the Maccabees declared war on the “assimilated.” Jews who didn’t conform to their interpretation of Judaism were put to the sword or had to seek refuge in the Diaspora. In an all too common reversal, those who fought intolerance became intolerant themselves.

It gets worse. Simon Maccabee, the last surviving brother of the original band and the first ruler of independent Judea, tried to stay true to the original Maccabean values. He didn’t proclaim himself king, but high priest and nasi (a Hebrew term meaning ”ethnarch” or “leader,” the same word used in Modern Hebrew for “president”), and he was elected in a democratic fashion. But things went downward from there. Simon was murdered by fellow Jews, and his descendants showed fewer scruples. Violating the “Davidic principle” (that only descendants of King David can be kings of Israel), they took the crown for themselves. Assuming full kingship while retaining the high priesthood, the power-hungry Hasmoneans  violated a paramount idea of Judaism: the separation between royal and religious power. All the while, recurrent civil wars cost tens of thousands of Jewish lives.

John Hyrcanus, Simon’s son, did something else that is anathema to Judaism: after his battles with the Idumeans, he forced the conversion of the entire population. Not exactly a way to honor the ideals of tolerance and freedom of his father… But then, that was hardly the only departure the Hasomneans made from the ways of their ancestors. Indeed, while one of the first purposes of the Maccabees had been to fight the “Hellenized” Jews, the Hasmonean kings had no qualms about adopting the nice accoutrements of Hellenistic life for themselves. Even their regal title changed to basileus, the Greek designation. (This hypocrisy reminds me of some of today’s Jewish American leaders who claim that criticizing Israel is beyond the pale, but who vociferously and publicly attacked Yitzhak Rabin during the Oslo Peace process).

The Hasmonean misadventure ended, as it only could, in farce and tragedy. John Hyrcanus’s grandchildren, Aristobolous II and Hyrcanus II, engaged in yet another vicious civil war and both had the brilliant idea of inviting Rome to intercede in their favor. You can imagine what came next: the beginning of the end of Jewish independence for two thousand years.

Looking at the state of the Jewish People today, there is in us much of the light of the Maccabees and, sadly, much of the darkness of the Hasmoneans. If you ask me which I think will prevail—which will be the ultimate heritage we derive from the Chanukah story—I have to agree with Zhou Enlai: two thousand years later is too early to tell.

During the last few months we have heard dangerous echoes of the Hasmoneans: zealotry and internecine hatred running wild, poisonous cocktails of religion and power politics, and, as in John Hyrcanus’s time, abandonment of our most basic values. We must ask: are we living the Maccabean dream, or the Hasmonean nightmare? How can we celebrate Chanukah once we know how the story really ends?

And yet, the story hasn’t ended even now. Now more than ever, in these times of violence and hatred, of intolerance and radicalism, we need to rescue the original light of the Maccabees that illuminated a vision of peace and respect; the light that expelled darkness and tyranny, and made freedom and tolerance a sacred imperative. Peoples, like stars, are entitled to a momentary eclipse in which light fades away. That is tolerable if we bring the light back, if we don’t let the eclipse lengthen into endless night.

As funders we have a major role to play, for every grant, every project, every act of kindness can be an opportunity for healing a broken word and reconciling a split community. We can—we must—be the light that shines through the cracks of our imperfect reality.

This year, as we celebrate the courage and the miracles of yesteryear, let us commit to building a world in which light outweighs darkness and hope vanquishes despair. Let us face violence with the conviction that—as the Maccabees taught us—right can triumph over might, and even when we walk through the dark valley of intolerance, let us celebrate every ray of the light we give to others.

Yes, it’s too early to tell. It always will be, because the battle between light and darkness is not an event but an ever-unfolding process.

The Chanukah story is still being written today, and what makes it frightening—and beautiful—is that the ending depends on us.

Chag sameach!


Andres Spokoiny is President and CEO of Jewish Funders Network

Hebrew word(s) of the week: Hashmona’im/makabbim, Hasmoneans/Maccabees


The Hasmoneans and Maccabees are almost synonymous names for the family that liberated the Holy Temple and all Judea from the Hellenistic (Greek) pagan influence. There are several explanations for both names. Hasmoneans may be derived from a forefather of the family named Hashmonay, or may have originated in the village Heshmon (Joshua 15:26).

Similarly, the Maccabees are named for Judah — the third son of Mattatyahu (Mattathias), “God’s Gift” — whose nickname was MaKaBY, an acronym of the verse (slogan) Mi Kamokha Ba-elim Adonay (Yah) “Who is like You, O Lord.” Or an acronym of Mattatyahu Kohen Ben Yohanan. More probably, Judah’s nickname was Maqqabi (with quf), “Hammer-man,” related to Hebrew maqqevet* “workmen’s hammer” (used also as a weapon, as by Yael who used it to kill Sisera; Judges 4:21). 

*From n-q-v, “to pierce a hole.” “Hammer” could also be a metaphor; compare Karl Martell (“Hammer”), the Frankish warrior.

Yona Sabar is a professor of Hebrew and Aramaic in the department of Near Eastern Languages & Cultures at UCLA.

Haim Saban reportedly pulls out of campus BDS initiative


Entertainment mogul Haim Saban reportedly has pulled out of a campus anti-BDS initiative he launched with fellow billionaire Sheldon Adelson.

Saban’s partnership with Adelson on the effort, called the Maccabees, was supposed to show bipartisan support for campus pro-Israel activism. Saban is a major donor to Democrats, while Adelson is a major giver to Republicans. But Saban has withdrawn from the project fighting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement because of its right-wing tilt, according to the Jewish Daily Forward.

“He didn’t like that Adelson was pushing the group towards funding right-wing groups that are only speaking in a right-wing echo chamber and not towards pushing a message that would actually change hearts and minds,” an unnamed Jewish communal official told the Forward.

Saban has also minimized his role in the Israeli American Council, an Israeli-American organization that he has funded along with Adelson, the Forward reported. Saban will not be at the organization’s conference this month.

The director of the Maccabees, David Brog, denied that Saban has taken issue with the group.

“I can assure you that Haim Saban had no objections to our plans for the Maccabees,” Brog, the executive director of Christians United for Israel, told the Forward. “Whoever claims otherwise simply has no idea what they’re talking about. Instead of chasing the rumors of the uninformed, please just stay calm and watch what we do.”

Why Chanukah matters


There’s a certain narrative about Chanukah that has become near conventional wisdom among American Jews, and it goes like this:

Chanukah is a fun holiday that is big in America, thanks to its proximity to Christmas. But really, it’s a “minor” holiday that is more impactful culturally and sociologically than religiously, and it can’t really compare to the “big” ones of Yom Kippur and Passover.

And that’s all true. But it’s also too simple.

Chanukah matters for many reasons. It matters because, as one historian put it, it allows American Jews to feel included in the American holiday season while also remaining distinct, because they have their own holiday. It matters because, as one rabbi put it, Chanukah provides light in a season of darkness, giving families good reason to come together and celebrate. It also matters because, as another rabbi said, Chanukah carries an anti-assimilationist message that is as relevant today as it was 1,800 years ago.

Chanukah is a rarity within Judaism. It’s a holiday that, because of its scant halachic background, doesn’t provide much fodder for legal or practical disagreement between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox. But it’s also a holiday that rabbis and Jewish academics and educators seem to agree is significant — uniquely so for American Jews — but for a variety of reasons. 

Chabad emphasizes the spiritual message of always increasing light. Modern Orthodox Jews focus on the sages’ narrative of the oil miracle pointing to God’s omnipresent role in the Maccabees’ military victory. Conservative and Reform Jews find meaning in why the sages altered Chanukah’s story by reducing the role of the Maccabees and increasing that of God, and also in how Chanukah allows Jews to feel just as American as Christians do in December. And many communal leaders see Chanukah as an ideal time to reach out to less-connected Jews.

Chanukah is a holiday that takes on different meanings for each different group of Jews. But it also offers something that no other Jewish holiday offers, and it does so without the conflict that often characterizes how other parts of Jewish religious life ought to be observed: Chanukah is a home- and family-based holiday, with eight nights of candle-lighting and lots of good food and celebration — there is no argument about that among any mainstream group of Jews. And it also happens to be an easy and fun way to practice Judaism during a season dominated by the image of the fun and warmth of Christmas. 

Chanukah’s message, meanwhile, is unique and cannot be found in any other Jewish holiday: To maintain Jewish religious practice in an open and liberal society that values assimilation is a challenge. But even with the holiday’s warning siren against assimilation, Chanukah and, to a certain extent, its message, have spread in America mainly because it has paired itself with Christmas. The irony is impossible to ignore.

Misremembering Chanukah

“Most Jews don’t know the stories of Chanukah, and if they do know the stories, they don’t know the real stories,” said Rabbi Ed Feinstein, senior rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.

The sanitized version of Chanukah casts the underdog Maccabees as winners of an unlikely victory against the mighty Greeks, and after the war, when the Jews went to light the menorah in the Temple, there was only enough oil left for one day, but the oil miraculously lasted for eight days. Voila! That’s Chanukah — Judaism surviving against all odds with God’s hand clearly present. 

Typically left unexplained is the story of religious division among Jewish traditionalists and assimilationists, the religious zealotry of the Maccabee and Hasmonean victors and why Jewish tradition emphasizes the miracle of the oil over the military victory.

The Chanukah story most Jews don’t know is that the Maccabean rebellion in 167 B.C.E. (the Second Temple era) was as much an outward revolt against the Greek attempt to destroy religious and spiritual Judaism (there was no genocidal intent) as it was a civil war to violently defeat Hellenist Jews who wanted to abandon or compromise religious Judaism to fit into Greek culture, which primarily valued science, philosophy and the arts. Hellenized Jews were so fanatic in their anti-Judaism that some males tried to reverse their circumcisions, according to the First Book of Maccabees, or I Maccabees, which, along with II Maccabees tells the official story of the Jewish war against Hellenism, from the point of view of the Maccabees. 

The era’s urban Jews, as a generalization, wanted a Hellenized Judea. Rural, more traditional Jews wanted to maintain their distinct Jewish identity and resist the force of Greek assimilation. Pro-Hellenist Jews, fed up with the refusal of the traditionalists to assimilate, requested that Antiochus — the Greek king at the time — send military forces to suppress the traditionalists.

But the occupying Greek forces were not the traditionalists’ first target. The trigger for their revolt was an apostate Hellenist Jew who offered a sacrifice to a Greek god in Modi’in, according to the Book of Maccabees. Mattathias, a traditionalist and the father of Judah Maccabee, saw the Jew about to perform a sacrifice, killed him, and then killed a Greek officer and tore down the altar where the sacrifice would have occurred.

And thus began the Maccabean revolt, which ended in a Jewish victory that propelled the Maccabees and the Hasmonean dynasty (essentially the political party of that era’s traditionalists) into power after the miracle of the war and the oil. The Hasmoneans’ story has been largely forgotten by modern Jews, in large part thanks to rabbinic Judaism’s decision during one of the early centuries of the Common Era to keep I Maccabees and II Maccabees out of the Torah canon, banished to the less authoritative realm of biblical Apocrypha — stories of Jewish history important enough to remain in our collective memory but kept out of the official canon for one reason or another. 

Purim, like Chanukah, also commemorates the Jews’ survival (although Chanukah celebrates religious, not physical, survival) against a mighty enemy — Haman and his cronies in Persia. The rabbis, though, elevated Purim above Chanukah, at least as far as halachah is concerned, by canonizing it. Open a Tanakh and the Book of Esther will be there; the Books of Maccabees won’t be. The rabbis of the third century felt uneasy canonizing and issuing their stamp of approval upon the Hasmoneans, an ultimately oppressive group of Jewish rulers who forced Jews into observance and killed religious deviants. 

Rabbi Eliyahu Fink of the Modern Orthodox Pacific Jewish Center in Venice Beach said the Hasmoneans’ extremism and their intolerance put them out of favor with the more moderate views of rabbinic tradition. “They were not the people of compromise,” Fink said.

Ironically, even though the Hasmoneans were the most extreme group of Jews ever to rule the land of Israel, the populace absorbed Hellenistic culture anyway, touting Jewish kings with names like John Hyrcanus and Aristobulus. Jews, meanwhile, have adopted  Greek-derived words like Sanhedrin and synagogue to label core elements of religious Judaism.

And while Jews under Hasmonean rule experienced the spread of the very same Greek culture that the Hasmoneans so violently opposed, they also came under Roman occupation after two Hasmonean brothers fighting for the crown — John Hyrcanus the Pharisee and Aristobulus the Sadducee — asked the Romans to settle the dispute. The Romans then took advantage of the Jewish infighting to invade, which led to the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. and the Roman exile, which lasts to this day and, according to Jewish tradition, will last until the coming of the Messiah and the construction of the Third Temple.

The rabbis of the Talmud who decided to omit the Maccabean version of history from official canon were not willing to elevate the tyrannical Jewish regime that lost Israel to the Romans, even if it was traditional in its religious practice. They felt, too, that the Chanukah story needed a miracle, and it needed God’s role to outweigh that of the Hasmoneans, so the rabbis told the story of the miracle of the oil, a spiritual miracle featuring God’s suspension of the law of nature. And this story came to outweigh the significance of the unlikely Maccabean victory that would lead to a dark period of Jewish power and a disgraceful fall.

The rabbis’ edited version of the story says much about how they believed Judaism needed to be understood during the era of Roman exile, especially by Diaspora Jews. 

“Although we were happy that [the Maccabees] won, that’s not the Judaism that we want to perpetuate,” Fink said. “The Judaism that we want to perpetuate is the one that speaks of light. To me, [the rabbis’] message was, ‘Don’t become an extremist.’ ”

A holiday of few (practical) disagreements

Disagreement is a pillar of Judaism, and most Jewish holidays are staging grounds for practical disagreements. Orthodox Jews disagree with Conservative and Reform Jews about how electricity should be used on Shabbat and other holidays. What’s considered chametz on Passover? What’s kosher? What’s not kosher? How many days of Shavuot should be observed? Should Shavuot be observed? 

Chanukah has no such disputes, which makes it one of the only agreeable festivals in the Jewish calendar.

“It’s one of the holidays with the least amount of halachic material,” said Rabbi Aaron Panken, president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. “There isn’t that much opportunity for much difference. From that perspective, it’s wonderful, because the entire Jewish community is observing it in the same way.”

And Chanukah is one of the most widely celebrated Jewish holidays in the United States, up there with Passover and Yom Kippur, allowing American Jews to shelve their differences for eight days. Orthodox Jews wary of Americanizing Chanukah accept, sometimes begrudgingly, that capitalizing on the Christmas spirit and ritualizing gift-giving has helped lead many Jews to observe the mitzvah of lighting the menorah and displaying it publicly, which Maimonides held is a particularly important mitzvah because of its commemoration of the survival and spread of religious Judaism. 

And non-Orthodox Jews skeptical of many tenets of rabbinic Judaism, and who may feel that Orthodox practices unnecessarily separate Jews from American culture, have proudly embraced Chanukah’s central halachic feature (lighting the menorah) as Jews’ way to take part in America’s holiday season while maintaining a unique Jewish identity.

“The truth of the matter is the rituals are pretty much the same,” said Feinstein. “You have a holiday that has no politics; no one’s saying that my version of the holiday is better than someone else’s.” 

The differences in practices, Feinstein said, are not between American Jews of different denominations, but between American Jews and Jews in other countries. From the gifts to the decorations to the food to the music, Feinstein said, “American Jews celebrate Chanukah very differently than, say, South African or European or Israeli Jews.”

Chanukah, Americanized

Nowhere else is Chanukah celebrated with the grandiosity that accompanies it in the United States. 

“It is not such a huge event in Israel, where Christmas is not a mainstream cultural phenomenon,” said David Myers, a UCLA history professor and Journal contributor.

How did Chanukah become a cultural phenomenon in America?

“Timing is everything,” said Jonathan Sarna, a historian and professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University. “It was historically a minor holiday and only became more major because of Christmas.”

This year, Chanukah ends on Christmas Eve, right in the middle of the American holiday season, giving American Jews the sense of full participation in a time when the vast majority of Americans associate the word “holiday” with Christmas.

Myers says that American Jews’ ability to adapt their holiday into “mainstream cultural norms” is similar to what other Diaspora Jewish groups did in learning the language of their host countries in Spain, Persia, numerous Arabic societies and, especially, Germany, where Hebrew and German combined to form Yiddish. “This kind of dynamic has occurred throughout Jewish history,” Myers said. “Jews have continuously adapted names, languages and cultural values from their host societies.”

In the late 1800s, Myers said, observant Jews in America “sought to revive memory of the holiday as a traditionalist reaction” against Reform Judaism’s wish to assimilate into American culture and de-emphasize Jews as a distinct people. Then, in the mid-20th century, many more American Jews, primarily non-Orthodox ones, revitalized Chanukah with the aim of turning it into the other major winter festival alongside Christmas, which is when gift-giving became the norm.

Why did Chanukah become a holiday celebrated by most American Jews, while holidays of greater stature according to Jewish law, such as Shavuot and Simchat Torah, are primarily celebrated by Orthodox Jews? It’s not just because of Christmas, Feinstein said. Chanukah, as a holiday of lights, has a particular appeal in its spiritual and physical light during the short winter days. “Its correspondence with Christmas and its correspondence with the winter solstice are what give it its power,” Feinstein said. 

Fink pointed out that while Christmas has helped elevate Chanukah’s status in America, Orthodox Jews would celebrate the holiday no matter what time of year it fell.

“They are not the ones who are benefiting from this kind of American holiday atmosphere,” Fink said, adding, though, that Chanukah’s gaining from the presence of Christmas should not be viewed as a negative thing. “I’m not saying that we celebrate Chanukah because [Christians celebrate Christmas], but it’s a time that people are going to have an interest in experiencing their own traditions, so it’s wise to capitalize on it.”

Chanukah’s proximity to Christmas, in that sense, not only helps American Jews by acting as a “counterweight” to Christmas, Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple said, but benefits from the Christmas spirit, drawing upon one of America’s three biggest holidays (Thanksgiving and New Year’s being the others) to make Judaism fun for those whose only Jewish observance throughout the year might be fasting on Yom Kippur and sitting down at a Passover seder. Chanukah, Wolpe said, is “minor in terms of its status halachically [but] major in terms of its status sociologically.”

“Among Jews who don’t have the strongest identification or the greatest education, there’s a lot pulling them into the general population,” said Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, director of interfaith affairs at the Simon Wiesenthal Center. “I think, arguably, that Chanukah has played an important role in giving non-Orthodox families a little bit of a hedge against the Christmas spirit.”

In America, Chanukah has drawn less-religious Jews into joyfully fulfilling the mitzvah of lighting the menorah and has brought American Jewry as a whole closer to the (American) ideal of having both a distinct American identity and a religious identity, as Sarna believes.

“Chanukah allows Jews simultaneously to be part of and apart from, and that’s really a microcosm of what a minority religious community wants to be,” Sarna said. “It wants to stress its distinctiveness even as it wants to be part of a certain zeitgeist.”

Wolpe, contrasting what Chanukah and Yom Kippur offer American Jews in terms of feeling more, well, American, said, “Look, the White House does a Chanukah lighting, they don’t do a Yom Kippur fast, because Chanukah allows them to understand, yes we have a holiday, they have a holiday — and that matters in a society that’s always striving for balance and has lots of different factions.”

Martin Weiss, a Holocaust survivor from the former Czechoslovakia, lights the Chanukah menorah on Dec. 5, 2013, as U.S. President Barack Obama looks on during the day’s second Chanukah reception in the Grand Foyer of the White House.  At left is Margit Meissner, a Holocaust survivor from the former Czechoslovakia. At right is U.S. Navy Lt. Ron Sachs. Photo by Consolidated News Photos

Myers, going a step further, believes the development of Chanukah in America is today’s example of how Diaspora Jews have managed to keep Judaism alive while blending into foreign nations. “It offers proximity to the American cultural mainstream while permitting some degree of preservation of Jewish distinctiveness,” Myers said. “Precisely the work of cultural adaptation and modification that allowed for Jewish renewal and, ultimately, survival.”

‘We don’t need to compete’

Perhaps no group has done more in America than Chabad to thrust Chanukah into the public square. American Friends of Lubavitch organizes the annual lighting of the National Chanukah Menorah in front of the White House; Chabad emissaries across American campuses place a menorah next to visible pedestrian walkways; Chabad families strap giant menorahs to the roofs of their cars and drive around like that for eight days. Whereas the commandment to publicize the miracle of Chanukah is fulfilled by most Jews by placing the menorah in a window, Chabad ratchets the practice up several notches, placing menorahs everywhere.

On the Chanukah agenda for Rabbi Moshe Greenwald, co-director of Chabad of Downtown Los Angeles, is the public menorah lighting at City Hall, this year with Mayor Eric Garcetti — Greenwald’s seventh such lighting; separate menorah lightings at a Los Angeles Clippers game and outside Staples Center; and organizing yet another lighting at Pershing Square, an urban park in the center of downtown. 

“In America, it’s particularly meaningful, because here we can practice all the observances in full view in public,” Greenwald said.

Greenwald added, though, that Chanukah, as one of Judaism’s “most important holidays,” doesn’t need Christmas to make it important. The holiday can stand on its own spiritual and religious merit, he said. “We don’t need to compete in the marketplace of holidays,” Greenwald said. “I don’t want to look at it as the Jewish Christmas.”

There’s irony to Chanukah’s piggybacking on Christmas in the United States, and Greenwald’s objection to making Chanukah the “Jewish Christmas” alludes to it — one of Chanukah’s main lessons is that Jews must resist the temptation to discard tradition in favor of a newer culture. At the same time, though, Chanukah’s attachment to Christmas is perhaps the main reason that the holiday is observed by so many non-Orthodox Jews; the same can’t be said for a holiday such as Simchat Torah, which is given a higher halachic status.

“I think that outside of Orthodox Judaism, there’s almost this wink-wink, nudge-nudge, this is our version of Christmas,” Fink said. “Orthodox Judaism really would be very uncomfortable with that.”

And as a holiday that warns against succumbing to “pressure from any outsider alien society,” Adlerstein said, Chanukah matters as much today as it did for the Maccabees: “The conflict between Jews who wished to bring their own practice more in conformance with the cultural milieu and secular surroundings, and traditionalists who wanted to hold on to core Jewish beliefs and practices hasn’t gone away one iota in 2,000 years.”

Rabbi Arye Sufrin, assistant principal at YULA Boys High School and assistant rabbi at Beth Jacob Congregation, said one message he tries to teach his students is not only Chanukah’s plea to “maintain the tradition” but also why it’s so important to publicize it with pride, a luxury afforded Jews in this country. “We can do that today, but there was a lot that had to happen” to reach this point of openness and safety, Sufrin said. “Chanukah is not a minor holiday.”

For female coach of Y.U. men’s team, biggest adjustment may be learning Jewish ways


Having been a standout player in high school and college, and an assistant coach, new Yeshiva University men’s volleyball coach Jacqui Dauphinais has plenty of knowledge about the sport.

And in her one season as an assistant for the Maccabees, she showed she wasn’t afraid to speak up.

The real adjustment for Dauphinais, who is not Jewish, may be the Jewish environment at the modern Orthodox school in New York City.

“It was foreign to not have a practice on a Friday night or a Saturday,” said Dauphinais, 30, a native of Cape Cod, Mass. “Also, I didn’t know there were as many holidays.”

She takes over after serving as an assistant under Arnold Ross for a team that won the Hudson Valley Intercollegiate Athletic Conference championship. Jacqui Dauphinais on women coaching men: “I think it’s a rarity. I don’t necessarily think it should be.” (Courtesy Yeshiva University)

As a female coaching men, Dauphinais, not surprisingly, is an anomaly.

According to the National Collegiate Athletic Association, eight men’s volleyball teams in its three divisions had female head coaches in 2012-13, the most recent academic year for which figures are available, compared to 99 men. (Overall, 8,646 of the 9,030 men’s teams in all sports had male head coaches and 384, or 4.2 percent, were led by women, with 316 of the 384 concentrated in swimming, tennis, cross country and track.)

Yeshiva announced the hiring of Dauphinais this summer three weeks after the San Antonio Spurs made Becky Hammon the NBA’s first female full-time assistant coach.

“I think it’s a rarity. I don’t necessarily think it should be,” said Dauphinais, who works full-time as a sales manager for a nonprofit organization that runs several New York zoos. “I know that [the players] respect me and know that I have the skill to push them in the right direction.”

Dauphinais’ players said they don’t give gender a thought.

“I make of it that if it’s the best candidate, it’s the best candidate,” said Jared Reichnitz, a Maccabees captain last year who graduated. “If you can get a team to play at the highest level and improve their skills, what does it matter? It doesn’t matter that she’s a woman. She’s a good coach.”

As to the Jewishness, Dauphinais said she accommodates the restrictions on traveling and playing on the Sabbath and holidays.

Scanning the schedule after accepting the job this summer, she realized that the HVIAC playoffs in April were set for Passover. Dauphinais arranged for the conference to delay the tournament and plans to conduct most practices for the postseason before the holiday break.

“I’m optimistic,” she said of already planning for the playoffs, even before a team was picked. “I always feel you have to go into the season with the best mind-set, the best outlook possible. That can, maybe, elevate you to a better position.”

The confidence appears to be well placed, as the Maccabees graduated only three players from the club that defeated St. Joseph’s College of Brooklyn in three straight sets to win the conference tournament.

It was at an early practice a season ago that Dauphinais made her presence felt by advising the team on defensive position and rotation. During games, she didn’t hesitate to approach players who had been substituted out to offer corrective tips.

“That was helpful when you went back into the game,” said Joseph Lipton, a returning senior. “When I’d go up to block, let’s say, I would go too far over and leave too much of the court open for my opponent to hit. She’d say, ‘Don’t leave so much of it open.’ ”

Dauphinais frequently led practices in the absence of Ross. Those sessions, often late at night in the basketball gymnasium on campus, along with in-game operations, made clear that Dauphinais would be an attractive candidate after Ross left last spring to take a job in Los Angeles.

“I was always impressed with her demeanor and knowledge of the game, and the players responded to her,” said Alexander Winnicker, the associate athletic director at Y.U., which plays on the Division III level, meaning no athletic scholarships are offered.

“How players respond to a coach is one of the largest indicators of the success of a coach.”

Dauphinais’ hands-on approach stood in stark contrast to the previous assistant coach, also a female, who was far less assertive, Reichnitz and Lipton said.

When the assistant resigned, Ross hired Dauphinais, whom he knew when both attended Mount Saint Vincent, a Catholic institution in the Bronx, near Y.U. The two continued playing together on recreation league teams of urban professionals.

“I wanted Jacqui because [we] had a lot of the same philosophies on how to set up an offense, how to play defense,” Ross said of recruiting her to the Manhattan university. “If I’m looking at one thing, she can look at something else and tell me what’s wrong. We both agreed on a lot of the same things.”

A short vacation to Cape Cod behind her, Dauphinais is raring to go in the new academic year. There are high schoolers to recruit, training regimens to set up, meetings to arrange and players to try out.

“I’m really excited to be returning to Y.U., now with a little more responsibility,” she said. “We’ll have a great season again and move forward. It’ll be great taking the helm, and I’m coming in with a really optimistic outlook for the season.”

 

AJR-CA dedicates new campus


With Chanukah marking the rededication of the holy temple in Jerusalem after the Maccabees’ defeat of Judea’s Seleucid rulers more than 2,000 years ago, the week of the holiday turned out to be the perfect time for the Academy of Jewish Religion, California (AJR-CA) to celebrate the opening of its new campus in Koreatown. 

More than 150 people showed up Nov. 24 for a hanukat habayit (“dedication of the home”) party that marked a new beginning for the school, which moved from a location on the property of Hillel at UCLA to 3250 Wilshire Blvd. in September.

“It’s a dedication. Chanukah was a rededication of the temple, [and] here we had a rededication for the academy and its new space,” AJR-CA president Tamar Frankiel told the Journal.

Founded in 2000, AJR-CA is a transdemoninational, rabbinical, chaplaincy and cantorial school. It strives to be a part of the puzzle of a Jewish landscape that — according to the school — had previously left out community members interested in a career at the pulpit but who did not affiliate with any of the major movements. 

Attendees at the event, which took place just days before the first night of Chanukah, included Jewish, Muslim and Christian clergy. They came together on a rooftop courtyard at the seminary’s Wilshire Boulevard headquarters to enjoy live music, food, guest speakers and more. 

Among the speakers were Frankiel; Imam Jihad Turk, president-designate of Bayan Claremont, an Islamic graduate school of Claremont Lincoln University; Rabbi Steven Leder, spiritual leader of Wilshire Boulevard Temple (WBT); and the Rev. David Jamir, senior pastor of Rosewood UMC Los Angeles.

AJR-CA, which is located one block west of Vermont Avenue, now sits within close distance of both WBT and Rosewood UMC, a Methodist church. This represents the diversity of the faith communities in the Koreatown area, Frankiel told the Journal.

Representatives of those institutions were among a “wide variety of people from across the community, old supporters, new supporters [and] alumni,” who turned out for the event, Frankiel said. 

There was plenty to celebrate. The event featured room-naming ceremonies for the 6,500-square-foot campus. Mezuzahs were installed, and attendees were treated to a tour of the campus artwork.

 “It was indeed a hanukat habayit,” AJR-CA co-founder Rabbi Stan Levy said in an e-mail to the Journal. “Perhaps not as momentous as the first Hanukkah of the [S]econd temple over 2,000 years ago, but in our own unique way part of the chain and fabric of Jewish religious history past, present and future.”

On the trail of the Maccabees


The heroes of Chanukah are no secret. The legendary Judah Maccabee and his warrior brothers defeated the Greek Hellenists in true Israelite fashion. Just as a young David slew Goliath, this tiny family-led army defeated a powerful military force. That much we know. But where in the world do we find a physical trace of these ancient warriors?

The mystery of the elusive trail of the Maccabim, as they are known in Hebrew, begins between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Near the entrance to Modi’in, one of Israel’s fastest-growing cities, elaborate Hasmonean graves are clearly marked with modern signage. Local legend suggests this is indeed the site of the ancient city of Modi’in, Maccabee headquarters during the time the Chanukah story took place. But is this, in fact, where the clan was laid to final rest 22 centuries ago?

Our search begins with the establishment of the modern city of Modi’in, which launched construction only in the 1990s. Next door, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach founded the collective settlement of Moshav Mevo Modi’im with a similar-sounding name more than 35 years ago. Developers unearthed thousands of relics after digging into two Modi’im sites. The first was Titora Hill, where archeologists discovered fascinating signs of ancient habitation, including remains of a large settlement. An elaborate tunnel system dating from the Bar Kokhba period and a crusader fortress also were unearthed. Today, the ruins stand as a green sanctuary in the middle of a burgeoning city.

The second major find came to light on the nearby road running from Modi’in to Latrun (between Shilat Junction and Mevo Modi’im), at the site called Um el-Umdan, Arabic for “mother of pillars.” During the construction of Route 2, excavations unveiled the oldest synagogue in all of Israel, decorated externally with pillars, which led to the locale’s moniker. Inside, archaeologists discovered beautiful frescoes. Other remarkable evidence includes a 25-room villa from the Hasmonean era and a Second Temple-era mikveh. In the second century C.E., following the Bar Kokhba revolt, the Romans razed this Jewish village.

The amazing discoveries at these sites derailed construction in the area and proponents proposed both as locations of the ancient village of Modi’in. But across the street from the aforementioned Um el-Umdan is perhaps the most remarkable discovery of all. On Highway 443, between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, bilingual Hebrew and English signs point to “Maccabean Graves — Hashmonean Village.” Here, in a story that rings familiar for many sites in Israel, a group of Jewish schoolchildren and their Zionist teacher were seeking a connection with these strong Jewish heroes in 1907. They asked a local Arab shepherd if he knew where the Maccabim were buried. He led them to a site called Kubur al-Yahud, Arabic for “the graves of the Jews.” On Erev Chanukah, they lit the first candle of the holiday and danced at the cluster of monumental graves. This Chanukah tradition continues today. 

Experts doubt this is the authentic site of the Maccabee graves, but popular belief endures. A look at the ancient texts describing the events of Chanukah offers more hints of the real location. As it states in the Book of Maccabees I (13:25-30), Shimon, the sole survivor, buried his family. He also constructed a pyramid-like tombstone on each of the graves for his parents and four brothers as well as his own future final resting place.

“Shimon sent for the bones of his brother, Jonathan, and buried them in Modi’in, city of his forefathers.

“All of Israel eulogized him and mourned for him many days.

“Shimon erected over the tombs of his father and brothers a monument of stones, polished front and back, high enough to be seen from a distance.

“He set up seven pyramids facing one another for his father and his mother and his four brothers.

“For the pyramids he devised a setting of big columns, on which he carved suits of armor as a perpetual memorial, and next to the armor he placed carved ships, which could be seen by all who sailed the sea.

“This tomb which he built at Modi’in is there to the present day.”

It’s impossible to conclude the accuracy of the enduring folk legend around the location of the graves. But excavations dating from the 19th century suggest the traditional site misses the mark and that Midya, a nearby Arab village, more closely fits the ancient description instead. Meanwhile, the experts qualified to actually determine the veracity of the myth are archaeologists, who remain unwilling to excavate the graves due to the sensitivity of the religious community. With the popular fervor for strong Jewish heroes so attached to the current site, the mystery of the Maccabee graves is likely to endure.

For those interested in exploring more of Hasmonean lore, the beautiful botanical garden and biblical nature reserve at Neot Kedumim offer insight into daily Hasmonean life. Activities include crushing olives for oil with a massive stone mill, creating clay lamps, drawing water, milling flour and participating in biblical cooking classes.

Another wonderful excursion through time is available both above and underground at the Jerusalem Archaeological Park and Davidson Center, where Maccabee-era houses, ritual baths, and galleries and multimedia presentations buttress the southern entrance to the Old City and Kotel area. Virtual panoramas, time lines and more are found on the park’s Web site.

For more information, visit Neot Kedumim (www.neot-kedumim.org.il) and Jerusalem Archaeological Park and Davidson Center (www.archpark.org.il)

The making of a Hollywood Maccabee wannabee


Who would have projected that Chanukah could be billed as the festival of lights, camera, action?

Mel Gibson, for one, who in the fall announced that he was working with Warner Bros. on producing a movie about Judah Maccabee.

Not seeing this as a boffo idea was Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, who was quoted on CNN as saying that “Judah Maccabee is one of the greatest heroes in Jewish history. Mel Gibson is an anti-Semite. He has made anti-Semitic remarks in the past. I don’t know what Warner Bros. was thinking.”

A few months later, the Hollywood Reporter made it known that others in Hollywood had taken note of Hier’s criticism when it announced that producer Bruce Nash was planning on making a competing Maccabee movie or TV miniseries, and had even hired a screenwriter.

With two Judah movies in production, I began to wonder: Was there room for a third? A low, low-budget cable version that would exploit the publicity of the other two?

I knew just the guy to do it—me. After all, I had worked for two weeks as a special effects assistant on “China Syndrome” eons ago, and live in sight of the Hollywood sign.

Inspired by the Hasmoneans, I would strike quickly and stealthily against the pop cultural foes, freeing the box office. But without a bankable star—in fact without anything even remotely related to a bank—I needed a miracle: an alternative way of drawing some attention to my prospective production.

What about springboarding my production off a best-selling game? After all, several major films, such as “Street Fighter” and the Laura Croft series, were adapted from games and had grossed $100 million or more.

That was the ticket.

I speed-dialed a board game manufacturer I knew in Long Beach, Calif.—Flaster Siskin, owner of FlasterVenture—to see if he wanted in. I had checked out his Maccabees board game online and saw that he had commissioned a dramatic cinematic illustration: a Greek Seleucid battle elephant being attacked by Maccabee insurgents. I instantly imagined the movie poster.

With the Maccabees very much in the news, and with an inventory of Maccabees games, I thought Siskin would be ready to deal. Not so fast.

Before entering the gaming business, Siskin had tried his hand at screenwriting. He warned, “Working in Hollywood is difficult. A lot of scripts get optioned but never get made.”

“The guy who’s spearing the elephant, is that Judah?” I asked, trying to draw him in.

“No, that’s his brother, Eleazar,” Siskin answered.

“Would we need to change script, then, keeping Judah as the film’s only action hero character?” I asked, thinking about the costs of two stars plus an elephant.

“It doesn’t need a major rewrite. You want to keep Eleazar in the picture,” he answered.

Siskin began to warm to his plot outline.

“The first act would show how a change in Seleucid leadership brought about oppression of the Jews,” he said.

The Eleazar and elephant scene would be the end of the second act. “It was the turning point of the war,” Siskin noted, adding that “Unfortunately, Eleazar, who is under the elephant, dies too.”

Ouch. For a holiday film, everyone wants a happy ending.

“But then, Judah and his warriors take back the country,” Siskin said, rallying for the film’s third act.

“And the climax?” I asked.

“The two miracles,” he answered. “The military victory and the oil burning for eight days.”

Now we moved to casting.

“Who plays Judah?” I asked.

“I would rather see a comedic tough guy like Adam Sandler than Mel Gibson,” he answered.

“We could even have Sandler sing ‘Eight Crazy Nights,’ ” I suggested, feeling the showbiz buzz. “And could we update the title. What about something more box office, like ‘Judah Mac?’ ”

“Very hip,” Siskin responded.

Now that my concept was a go, I needed to audience test it with the Jewish establishment. Since Holocaust museum folks like Hier seemed to be the go-to guys for Jewish reaction these days, I turned to Mark Rothman, director of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, who also was a film school graduate.

For starters, Rothman wanted me to know of his “deep suspicion of Gibson’s telling the Judah story with any Jewish sensitivity,” he said. Then, thinking of how to draw the largest draw for my production, Rothman told me to be mindful of the film’s potential Christian audience.

“This clearly has to be a crossover,” he said.

To cut costs, Rothman thought I should restrict the battle scenes to guerrilla-type actions. “Something like sabotaging chariots,” he suggested.

Suddenly worried that this was sounding too much like a war movie, I asked Rothman if I needed a love interest. Ever the film school grad, he quickly outlined how I could write in a female warrior who gains acceptance by fighting off several enemy attackers.

Then I hit him with my projected title.

“Judah Mac” excited him with tie-in possibilities. “Maybe Apple will come out with a new laptop, or McDonald’s a new burger,” he said, laughing at his cleverness.

However, when I told him about the planned dramatic moment when Eleazer impales the elephant, Rothman blanched.

“You’re only going to get in trouble from PETA and the ASPCA,” he warned.

There went my second act.

“Making ‘Judah Mac’ is going to be much harder than I thought,” I said, frustrated by the new complication.

“Welcome to Hollywood,” said Rothman.

(Edmon J. Rodman, who lives just a couple of miles from Hollywood, writes a JTA column on Jewish life. Contact him at edmojace@gmail.com.)

Chanukah — it’s not just about a miracle anymore


One of the Jewish calendar’s most widespread and public observances, the Chanukah holiday has traditionally emphasized two miracles: the military victory of Jewish rebels over Greek invaders and the one vial of oil that lasted for eight nights.

However, just as other holidays have seen their historic purpose shaped to contemporary narratives, Chanukah is increasingly being used as a vehicle for other Jewish agendas that seem to stray far from the holiday’s original meaning.

This year, much of the focus is on global warming. The Shalom Center, a Philadelphia-based group focused mainly on environmental issues, has launched the Green Menorah Covenant campaign to promote improved energy efficiency among Jewish communities. The campaign, which is timed to coincide with both Chanukah and a U.N.-sponsored conference on climate change in Bali, Indonesia, follows a similar effort begun last year to encourage switching to more energy-efficient lightbulbs.

A Light Among the Nations, a project of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), aims to get Jews to switch to compact fluorescent lightbulbs during the holiday. This year, the program is being tied to JCPA’s anti-poverty campaign, which in December will focus on energy.

The JCPA was also involved in the creation of Ner Shel Tzedakah (candle of righteousness), a joint initiative of the Reform and Conservative movements that aims to teach about poverty by encouraging families to donate their holiday gifts to organizations assisting the poor.

The most famous figures of the Chanukah story, the mythic Maccabees, have been appropriated as symbols of Jewish sport — no small irony, considering the Maccabees rebelled against the worship of athletic prowess that characterized Hellenistic civilization.

And on the Shabbat that falls in the middle of Chanukah on Dec. 8, rabbis are being encouraged to tie their sermons to the struggle for Soviet Jewry, which is marking its 40th anniversary this year.

Jeffrey Gurock, a history professor at Yeshiva University and author of a book about Judaism’s encounter with sports, said that sports teams should more aptly be called the “anti-Maccabees.” The shift in thinking about the Maccabees, Gurock said, is linked to the Zionist thinker Max Nordau, who sought figures in Jewish history as models for what he called “muscular Judaism.”

“It was an appropriation of a particular moment in ancient Jewish history that’s [been] revived and used in modern times,” Gurock said. “Jews were fighters in the ancient world. And they want to go back to this image of Jews.”

Chanukah has more to do with ancient miracles than with environmentalism or concern for the poor. The holiday marks the victory of Maccabean rebels against their Hellenistic rulers in the second century B.C.E. and the subsequent miracle of the temple oil lasting for eight days.

Rabbi Leon Morris, executive director of the Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning in New York, said he has no problem with added layers of meaning being added to the Chanukah story, provided it doesn’t eviscerate its underlying themes.

“I think every holiday gives us an opportunity to look for contemporary resonance of the holiday’s themes in our lives,” Morris said. “The roots of Chanukah are sufficiently complex to open up a variety of contemporary issues to weave into our own understanding.”

Morris also noted some further ironies in the contemporary American celebration of Chanukah. The holiday, which invites thinking about the tension between Jewish particularism and Hellenistic universalism, is played out against the backdrop of the dominant culture’s celebration of Christmas. Chanukah’s timing to the winter solstice, Morris speculated, may also imply something about non-Jewish influence on the holiday.

“I guess the question we should ask is not whether these interpretations are legitimate, but what’s prompting them,” Morris said. “As contemporary Jews look at the liturgy, narratives and stories, what is it that’s sparking these different sorts of ideas?”

In the case of poverty, the spark was in part mounting concern over the growing commercialization of the December holiday season.

“Our thinking was to raise the profile of the issue of poverty,” said Rabbi Marla Feldman, director of the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism. “I think a lot of families these days are feeling overwhelmed by the consumerism that has become a focus of the holiday.”

Grafting a concern for the environment on to Chanukah celebrations is clearly motivated by the contemporary awareness of climate change and its related risks. But as many note, it may not be such a stretch of the imagination to see resource conservation as a lesser moral of the Maccabbean tale.

Rabbinic tradition, with its reluctance to glorify military triumphs, emphasized instead the miracle of the oil lasting for eight days, and it’s but a short leap from rescuing a lone vial of oil to preaching the necessity of conserving natural resources.

“It’s substantively a part of the holiday because there was a time when we really needed to have a little energy go a long way. And we call that time Chanukah,” said Rabbi Steve Gutow, executive director of JCPA. “By the same token, we think we’re at a time in our world history where we need to conserve and husband our energy.”

Likewise, Gutow said Chanukah also recalls a time when the Jewish community was poor in resources. “It was a time when we were at a nadir of our ability to find energy and to use it,” he said. “And it ties in well to the difficulties that poor Jews and poor Americans have. It makes perfect sense to me.”

Chanukah and adult faith


A lot of people have trouble with Chanukah. I did, for years. I’d go to parties and nibble on my latke or sufganiyot while grumbling under my breath about how there was nothing here to celebrate. I’d light my Chanukiyah, but I’d only do the bare minimum needed to fulfill the mitzvah and I’d do my best not to enjoy it.

My problem then, and the problem of the people who this year have already informed me that they’re all but going to boycott the holiday, is that the history of this particular celebration is, well … complicated.

The war through which we celebrate Chanukah was, in part, a Jew-on-Jew civil war, in which zealous traditionalists attacked and killed the more assimilationist Hellenized Jews. The catalyst for the violent revolution was the reigning Syrian Greek king, Antiochus IV, who demanded that Jews worship false gods and violate the Sabbath, or die. The Jews who refused to do this were not very pleased with the ones who did.

Historically speaking, the miracle of Chanukah is that this small, bandit guerrilla army (the zealots) triumphed over Antiochus’ large army and formidable weapons, against all odds, not only taking back the desecrated Temple, but re-dedicating it as well.

The “Chanukah miracle” with which most kids are raised was apparently invented by rabbinic sages living 300-600 years after the Maccabean events took place — the first time we hear the story of oil that was meant to last for one day but instead burned for eight is in the Talmud. It’s not clear exactly when the story originated, but some scholars posit that the tradition originated when some of the rabbis still living under Roman rule figured it wouldn’t be that clever to publicly celebrate a holiday marking the violent overthrow of a foreign government, particularly (possibly) in light of the failed Bar Kochba rebellion. Instead, they came up with the much more kid-friendly version about the oil which, conveniently, lends itself much more to spiritualized interpretations of Chanukah.

Why was it eight days originally? There are a few theories. One suggests that the Maccabees were too busy waging war to celebrate Sukkot on time, so they did so later — but that doesn’t explain why Chanukah became a separate holiday in subsequent years. Two others offer a little more irony: one suggests that an eight-day winter festival of lights was widespread in Greek, Roman and Babylonian antiquity, and another notes that that’s how long the Greeks celebrated their military victories.

All this, frankly, wasn’t even enough to bother me — not even the Jew vs. Jew part. That’s nothing new as Jewish history goes. What happened afterwards, however, was really disturbing. After the Hasmoneans-Maccabees-zealots-heroes of our story won, once Israel was reclaimed and the Temple restored, Judah, the Hasmonean leader, and his brothers set to making a mighty Hebrew nation — by force. First they attacked the non-Jews on their own Hasmonean turf. As it says in the Book of Maccabees, “they forcibly circumcised all the uncircumcised boys that they found within the borders of Israel” (I Maccabees 2:46) as a way of Juda-izing them — making them all Judean-like. (Again, note the irony — they had been upset when the Hellenizers imposed their own cultural signifiers as a way of denoting allegiance.)

It got worse after that. Judah “Maccabee” “took [a non-Jewish filled] town, and killed every male by the edge of his sword, then he seized all its spoils and burned it with fire” (I Maccabees 5:28). He then did the same thing to the innocent people in Maapha, Chaspho, Maked, Bosor, other towns in the region of Gilead, Hebron, Marisa, Azotus and other places in the land of the Philistines. There are a lot of stories: when the army “saw a tumultuous [wedding] procession with a great amount of baggage, they rushed on them from the ambush and began killing them … the wedding was turned into mourning and the voice of their musicians into a funeral dirge” (I Maccabees 9:39-41).

The people that were killed or circumcised here were innocent. I don’t feel any more OK that it was “our guys” doing the unprovoked attacking and killing; that makes me feel worse, more uncomfortable, more upset, and I feel compelled to take some sort of responsibility for it.

One can, perhaps, understand why this holiday made me so angry for so long — why I’d go to synagogue and blurt uncomfortable facts about military history while everybody else was trying to enjoy a nice game of dreidel. It wasn’t really a fun place to be.

Then something shifted. I don’t know what, or why. One year, though, I started sitting and meditating in front of my Chanukiyah every night, sitting and breathing with the candles as they burned, thinking about renewal, rededication, how to make something from what seems to be the utter desolation of nothing. It’s not that I had forgotten the atrocities committed at the end of the Hasmonean war, it’s that … they didn’t block me anymore.

A mature adult faith demands that we take in difficult, painful facts and allow them to become part of our understandings of God, our language of faith and connection. Chanukah is not a holiday about innocence. Neither is Purim, actually — Jews did some slaughtering there, too.

Part of adult faith is being able to look truth in the eye, to take responsibility for it, and to not get stuck by the fact that it’s not an easy story. It certainly requires us not to take out our frustrations on God. I know too many people whose faith was seriously shaken by biblical criticism — as though God changes just because our understanding of history might. As though God weren’t bigger and far more expansive than that. As though it’s God’s fault that we’re just getting some new information. As if it’s God’s fault that human beings sometimes behave in ways that are unforgivable. As though God’s Divinity might not shine through texts written at different times and places, for different reasons.

An adult relationship to this stuff has to include the facts of, in this case, bad human behavior and Jewish culpability, and yet also maintain the awe and reverence that God deserves. Is there any reason that I can’t be grateful for the survival of the Jewish religion while condemning the actions of those who were involved in its (miraculous) survival?

Stories and essays and pictures illuminate holiday


“There are many lights in light,” according to a line in the Talmud. Hillel’s words refer to the blessing over the Havdalah candle, but can be applied no less to Chanukah.

The most exquisite of new books for the season is not about Chanukah, but about light. An oversize volume, Sam Fink’s “The Book of Exodus” (Welcome Books) includes 40 watercolor paintings of the sky, each hand lettered with a chapter of Exodus, in Hebrew and English.

In an introduction, artist and calligrapher Fink writes of connecting “the infinite wisdom of the words of Exodus with the never-ending magic of the sky.” He “embroiders the delicacy of the words” into the sky, fitting lines of text into the movement of the clouds. Facing pages include the English text in type and his skyscape paintings with their handwritten English and Hebrew text. The book divides Exodus — described by Fink as “a cry for freedom” — by chapters, as opposed to the weekly Torah readings.

The project began as a personal gift to the author’s family and then was expanded. Fink worked on this for four years, inspired by the custom, seldom invoked, that he learned from his rabbi, that a man copy his own Bible before the end of his days.

Chanukah’s many letters, many spellings and many possibilities are explored in “How to Spell Chanukah: 18 Writers Celebrate 8 Nights of Light” edited by Emily Franklin (Algonquin). The essays are humorous, sometimes nostalgic, irreverent, autobiographical sketches. Young writers including Elisa Albert, Ed Schwarzschild, Adam Langer, Amy Klein of The Jewish Journal, Tova Mirvis, Steve Almond, Joanna Smith Rakoff and others describe and dish about family, rituals, love, Christmas envy, too many latkes, chocolate gelt and “Judas Maccabaeus-shaped candies in blue-and-white tinfoil.

Joshua Neuman, publisher of Heeb magazine, writes about his short-lived efforts as a salesman, his family trade. His immigrant grandfather had made his way convincing people they needed things. The then-25-year-old aspiring writer, with a graduate degree in the philosophy of religion who taught Hebrew school, tries selling stuffed animal mufflers called Creature Comfies — his father’s brainstorm of an idea — to major department stores in the weeks leading up to Christmas. He takes out his earrings, prints business cards, puts on an old suit and soon gets escorted out of Lord & Taylor by security.

Eric Orner contributes a comic strip, “Traditions Break,” in which a young woman has nowhere to go over winter break when she gets thrown out of her dorm room, and the Chanukah package her mother sent is locked up in the closed mail room. Her louse of a boyfriend, Tommy, “the kind of Jew who thinks Maccabees are the fancy nuts people bring back from Hawaiian vacations,” has left her behind while he’s skiing with friends. But an expected new friend takes her in and crafts the “ugliest, loveliest menorah I’ve ever seen” out of foil.

In “Eight Nights,” Laura Dave describes seven nights of Chanukah over her life, where she has been in many places and with many people. She spends the eighth night at her parent’s home in the suburbs, where she naps in her childhood bedroom and takes in the scene with gratitude of being surrounded by family. Before her father drives her to the station for the train ride back to her own new home in the city, she loads up on toilet paper, batteries and fresh apples, things her parents insist she won’t find in the city. As they’re pulling out of the driveway, she remembers all the nights that came before and catches a glimpse: “The Chanukah lights in the window — shining, like eight simple stories — in the night sky.”

For all of these essayists, with their different styles, grudges and dilemmas, sweet and bittersweet memories, Chanukah counts for more than eight nights.

In “The Golden Dreydl,” illustrations by Ilene Winn Lederer (Charlesbridge, ages 8 to 11), Ellen Kushner turns to folklore, fantasy and humor. The host and writer of the public radio series “Sound & Spirit,” Kushner has narrated performances of this original story with the Shirim Klezmer Orchestra around the country. The book opens with a young girl named Sara, who’s upset that her family’s house looks so ordinary next to all the other houses on their block that are so beautifully lit up for Christmas. She’s bored with Chanukah.

At her aunt’s Chanukah party, she is presented with a large, shiny dreydl, which turns out to be a magical dreydl princess who takes her on a great adventure through worlds of biblical figures, demons, fools and other strange folks. Toward the end, Sara gets caught up in a dance where the letters of the dreydl along with every letter of the alphabet combine to make word after word, “as if the world itself were being created in letters.” She awakens into golden light.

“The Best Hanukkah Ever” by Barbara Diamond Goldin, illustrated by Avi Katz (Marshall Cavendish) is a funny and touching story about the Knoodle family and their misdirected efforts at buying each other “the perfect gift, one that will be treasured forever.” Children of all ages will enjoy this story, which seems like a meeting between “The Gift of the Magi,” O’Henry’s classic tale of giving and receiving, and “Tales of Chelm.”

A Sephardic custom of the holiday serves as the centerpiece of “Hanukkah Moon” by Deborah Da Costa, illustrated by Gosia Mosz (Kar-Ben, ages 6 to 10). A young girl named Isobel visits her Aunt Luisa, newly arrived from Mexico with her cat named Paco. They celebrate Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the new month, when the new moon appears. In this enchanting story that features a tree of birds, a dreydl is called trompo, guests knock open a fanciful pinata and wish each other Feliz Januca, and they have couscous with their latkes.

Another story that unfolds on Rosh Chodesh, “Mayer Aaron Levi and His Lemon Tree” by Tami Lehman-Wilzig (Gefen) is a sweet story about a family and a tree that is passed down through generations. Not only has the tree lived on among Mayer Aaron Levi’s descendants, but so has the story of his tremendous generosity.

How the Maccabees Reshaped Jerusalem


 

The Maccabees are celebrated throughout the Jewish world for recapturing Jerusalem for the Jews, rededicating the Temple and lighting lamps with a day’s supply of oil that miraculously lasted for eight days.

Less well-known, according to a leading Israeli archaeologist, is that the Maccabees also were major builders who transformed the face of Jerusalem and restored the centrality of the Temple in Jewish life.

“The problem is that Herod the Great built so thoroughly that many remains of the Maccabeans have almost disappeared,” said Dan Bahat, a senior lecturer at Bar-Ilan University who is spending the academic year lecturing at St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto.

The Maccabeans, who founded the Hasmonean dynasty, likely inspired King Herod’s vision of the Temple, said Bahat, whose specialty is Jerusalem of the Second Temple period.

In recent years, the former chief archaeologist of Jerusalem has supervised the excavations of the Western Wall tunnel, the ancient subterranean passage that extends along the western perimeter of the Temple Mount.

A large water channel that was discovered in the tunnel has been accepted by many archaeologists as a Maccabean-built aqueduct and, according to Bahat, almost certainly is the most visible Maccabean relic in the Old City.

“This is the most important remain of Hasmonean Jerusalem today,” he said. “It’s an enormous ditch that was excavated from the surface in order to supply water to the fortress named Baris, which was the seat of the Maccabean family before they moved to a place in the area of today’s Jewish Quarter.”

The apocryphal Book of the Maccabees offers ample evidence that the legendary leaders of the Jewish revolt against the Greeks were great builders. As further evidence, Bahat cites the fine mosaics and frescoes excavated in various Maccabean palaces in Jericho.

But the Maccabees’ architectural footprint was almost fully erased in Jerusalem, especially on the Temple Mount, by King Herod’s massive construction projects.

Although the Book of the Maccabees relates that its heroes undertook projects to heighten the Temple Mount walls and remove a hill as a protective measure against the Greeks, there’s little chance of discovering even the slightest physical trace of these efforts, according to Bahat.

Without archaeological evidence, “it’s very difficult for us to decipher what exactly they have done,” he said. “But there’s no doubt the Maccabees greatly contributed” to the national “consciousness of the importance of the Temple. After the Maccabean period, there’s no question that the Temple was the center of Jewish life in all respects.”

He added, “The Maccabees made the Temple the most important thing in Jerusalem.”

In rebuilding the Temple, King Herod was guided by the measurements listed in the Book of Kings, but went beyond any scriptural references when it came to the Temple’s beautification.

“My question is, when he did all these works, where did he learn it from? What did he take it from? It must have been from the Maccabees,” Bahat said.

Born in 1938, Bahat grew up in the pre-state Yishuv at a time when Jewish access to the Old City of Jerusalem seemed a far-away dream. It was Professor Michael Ave-Yonah’s famous model of ancient Jerusalem in the Holy Land Hotel that first inspired him to study all available scriptures and texts about the Old City.

“I thought, ‘If he can do it, so can I,’ ” Bahat recalled. “I never imagined that I would ever really be in the Old City of Jerusalem, so I thought that at least theoretically, I could get to know it very well.”

He chose to specialize in the Second Temple period because the era marked “the apex of Jerusalem as a Jewish city,” he said. “Remember the saying, ‘The one who hasn’t seen Jerusalem hasn’t seen a beautiful city in his life.’ Or the other saying, ‘Of the 10 parts of beauty in the world, Jerusalem took nine.'”

When Bahat attained his bachelor’s degree from Hebrew University in 1964, Jerusalem still was divided and there was a paucity of literature in Hebrew about the Old City.

“Most of the study of Jerusalem was done by non-Jews, mainly by Christians interested in the city where Jesus walked,” he recalled.

The restoration of Jewish sovereignty over the Old City in 1967 prompted an unprecedented boom of Jewish-led archaeological investigations.

“The result of that is that today our knowledge of Jerusalem has increased immensely,” Bahat said. “We can’t compare our knowledge of Jerusalem in 1967 to what we know today.”

Possibly the only authority anywhere on the topography of Jerusalem in the Middle Ages, Bahat is a fervent nationalist and lover of history who knows many passages of scripture by heart but says he is not religiously observant.

Bahat has lectured to Christian groups around the world on Jerusalem in the time of Jesus and once was invited by Pope John Paul II to do so at the Vatican. He seems equally versed on Jerusalem in the eyes of Islam, and did his doctoral thesis on Jerusalem in the Crusader period.

During his 40 years as an archaeologist, Bahat has produced dozens of books and papers, including the well-known “Illustrated Atlas of Jerusalem” and a popular illustrated volume two years ago on the Western Wall tunnel.

Although his specialty is Jerusalem, Bahat also has worked on many major archaeological digs in Israel, including the ancient synagogue in Beit Shean and the mountaintop fortress at Masada. It was at Masada that he made one of his most remarkable finds: a group of shards with Hebrew names on them, dating from the moment of the dramatic fall of the Jewish stronghold to the Romans in 73 C.E.

But Bahat continues to focus most of his scholarly attention on the city to which he has devoted much of his career.

“All my life is based on studying Jerusalem,” he said. “It’s a lifetime job, it’s not a simple thing. It’s a multifaceted city. The field is so complex and so complicated, but so interesting. So I’m kind of addicted to Jerusalem.”

 

When in Rome


The election of Dr. Riccardo Di Segni as the new chief rabbi of Rome opens the latest chapter in the tumultuous life of a Jewish community that traces its history back to the days of the Maccabees.

Di Segni was elected earlier this month to replace Elio Toaff, who is retiring at age 86 after 50 years in Italy’s most prominent Jewish religious post.

The new chief rabbi stressed his sense of duty in becoming the religious leader of what is considered the oldest continuous Jewish community in Europe.

"I will be the guardian of the memory of this community, which has never moved from here for more than 2,000 years," he said. "We have resisted everything, including infamy. We are faithful and proud of these places."

While Jews may have settled in Rome in the third century BCE, it was the Maccabees’ successful revolt against Syrian King Antiochus in the second century BCE which put the community on the map.

The festival of Chanukah was established on 25 Kislev 165 BCE, when Judah Maccabee, his brothers and his volunteer army held a ceremony to rededicate the Temple after their victory.

Only four years later, in 161 BCE, Judah sent a diplomatic mission to Rome in an attempt to forge an alliance against the Syrians and preserve the Jews’ precarious independence.

"It was natural to solicit the sympathy and support of the great new power in the West," the scholar Cecil Roth wrote in his "History of the Jews in Italy."

Written accounts tell how Jason ben Eleazar and Eupolemos ben Johanan, the Maccabees’ Jewish ambassadors, appeared in front of the Roman Senate and received pledges of friendship and protection.

"These details are by no means insignificant," Roth wrote. "These are the first Jews to be in Italy, or to visit Europe, who are known to us by name," and are "the spiritual ancestors of Western Jewry as a whole."

Further diplomatic missions were dispatched in coming years by Judah’s brothers Jonathan and Simon, who succeeded him.

In 139 BCE, Simon sent envoys to Rome "with a great shield of gold of a thousand pound weight to confirm the [alliance] with them," Roth wrote.

From that time on, the Jewish presence in Rome has been constant. Today, Rome’s 15,000 Jews make up the largest Jewish community in Italy, which has about 35,000 Jews in all.

In ancient times, the number of Jews in Rome had swelled to nearly 50,000, or 10 percent of the population. The numbers increased after the Romans — led by the Emperor Vespasian and his son Titus — conquered Jerusalem and brought back Jewish slaves and prisoners. The Second Temple was eventually destroyed in 70 CE.

The Roman Forum’s Arch of Titus, which commemorates the sack of Jerusalem, has become one of the most powerful symbols of the Diaspora. Its carvings depict the emperor’s triumphant procession carrying loot from the Temple, including a large, seven-branched menorah.

The arch became such a powerful symbol that Roman Jews refused to walk under it.

It was only in 1948, with the founding of the State of Israel, that Jews passed through it in a solemn procession — in the direction opposite to that taken by the triumphant ancient processions.

The menorah on the arch served as the model for the menorah symbol used on the emblem of the State of Israel.

Other archeological remains, including a synagogue and Jewish catacombs, also bear testimony to the antiquity of Rome’s Jewish community.

The synagogue, located at the site of Rome’s ancient port, Ostia Antica, was discovered in 1961. It is believed to date from the latter part of the first century CE, and was remodeled at the end of the third century.

In ancient times, Ostia Antica was a bustling port at the mouth of the Tiber, but, because of the changing coastline, its site today is inland. The remains on the ancient port form an archeological zone reminiscent of a mini Pompeii.

The ruined synagogue has a clearly visible ark decorated with carvings of a menorah, lulav and shofar; a room with an oven which may have been used to bake matzah; and oil lamps decorated with menorahs.

One of the most interesting finds was a tablet with a Greek inscription, in which a local Jew named Mindi Faustos praises himself for having donated the ark.

The menorah, lulav and shofar were the three symbols most representative of Jews in ancient times, and they appear frequently on ancient Jewish tombs.

Five Jewish catacombs have survived from Roman times, mainly from the third and fourth centuries CE.

In addition to Jewish symbols, the catacombs are decorated with vivid paintings showing animals, plants, geometric forms and even human figures.

The Vatican Museum has the largest collection of Hebrew inscriptions and epitaphs from the Jewish catacombs. Nearly 200 are on display, some showing exceptionally detailed relief carvings.

Many are decorated with representations of ritual objects, including the menorah plundered by the Romans from the Temple in Jerusalem.

What Is the Holiday Miracle?


Nes Gadol Hayah Sham.

We all agree that the letters on the sides of the dreidel stand for "A Great Miracle Happened There." (In Israel, of course, the letters stand for Nes Gadol Hayah Po — "A Great Miracle Happened Here.")

But — and this is why there’s a book titled "Two Jews, Three Opinions" — what miracle are we talking about?

"It’s obviously the oil," my son Zack, 17, says. "Read your Rashi."

When the Talmud asks "What is Chanukah?" Rashi, one of the leading rabbinic commentators, interprets this to mean "What is the miracle of Chanukah?" The Talmud then explains that when the Maccabees entered the defiled Temple, they found a small amount of oil, enough to last only one day. But, miraculously, the oil burned for eight days.

Thus, we light candles on our menorah for eight days to commemorate this miracle, fulfilling the only commandment of this — yes, hard to believe, minor and nonbiblically ordained — holiday, which is also appropriately called the Festival of Lights. Additionally, if possible, we display the menorah in a window to publicize the triumph of Jewish faith over the forces of darkness.

"No," says Jeremy, 12. "The miracle is that the Maccabees conquered the Greek army. I studied Ancient Greece, and they had a pretty good army."

The First and Second Books of the Maccabees, which are contained in the Apocrypha, a series of books that were excluded from the Bible, support Jeremy. These tell the story of how the small band of Maccabees, led by Judah, fought for the right to practice Judaism — to observe Shabbat, to study Torah and to eat kosher foods. They overcame the stronger, larger army of the Syrian-Greeks, as well as scores of Jews who readily embraced the Hellenistic culture, and reconsecrated the Temple. There is no mention of oil.

The military victory, and not the oil, is also commemorated in "Al Ha’nissim," the special prayer included in the Amidah during Chanukah. "You delivered the mighty into the hand of the weak, the many into the hand of the few… " it says.

"That’s not a miracle. That’s hard work," Zack argues. "A miracle implies something that is beyond human capacity."

"Like fighting holiday crowds and standing in long lines to buy a Microsoft Xbox?" I ask.

In truth, that is the miracle of Chanukah. Not merely that we stand in long lines to buy the Xbox or GameCube or Fisher-Price Rescue Heroes. But that year after year, century after century, we gather with our families to kindle the Chanukah lights, chant the blessings, eat latkes, spin dreidels and, a recent innovation, exchange gifts.

Even in darkest Europe during World War II, many Jewish concentration camp inmates saved bits of oil or shoe polish, fashioned wicks out of threads and enlisted spoons or scooped out potatoes to serve as menorahs. They risked their lives to light Chanukah candles.

For the miracle, in short, is that we Jews have survived, or, as we say in the "Shehecheyanu" blessing on the first night of Chanukah, that God has "kept us alive and sustained us and let us reach this time."

To achieve this, we needed both miracles — the oil, which symbolizes our commitment to Judaism, and the military prowess. Without either, we would have perished.

This, of course, is an old story, going back to Amalek, the quintessential evil-doer and the first to attack the Israelites. Amalek was defeated, but, as the Torah states in Exodus 17:16, "The Lord will have war with Amalek from generation to generation.”

This is also a modern story with a new Amalek, Osama bin Laden, who wants to annihilate our Western and Jewish ways and institute his fundamentalist brand of Islam.

And so Chanukah seems darker this year. Not because it comes in the Northern Hemisphere before the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, but because it comes after Sept. 11.

Nearly three months later, it comes after our shock, which has protected us with a shield of surrealism, has worn off, leaving us with the stark and painful reality of thousands of senseless deaths.

And it comes after we’ve seen unemployment and long lines at food pantries across the nation rise, along with increased reports of depression and anxiety.

In addition, the Israeli-Palestinian violence — now 14 months old — shows little sign of abating.

But despite our somber moods, it is imperative that we celebrate Chanukah this year as fully and joyfully as possible, focusing on its enduring story of survival.

My sons, along with ancient and modern Jewish authorities, can continue to debate the nature of miracles. Whether they result from divine intervention, such as the parting of the Red Sea or Daniel’s escape from the lions’ den. Whether these supernatural phenomena are preordained or allegorical. Or whether miracles come from human struggles that eventually triumph in the face of great adversity.

But at the end of day, this Chanukah, we again need both kinds of miracles — our faith, as Americans and as Jews, and our military might — to dispel the darkness that has fallen on our world.