Friday, December 17, 2004

Hanukkah Abscondita

Last week, someone mentioned to me that the number of Israeli Jews who light Hanukkah candles is in decline. At first I couldn't believe it. After all, the Guttman Study showed an increase in Jewish involvement among Israeli Jews and anecdotal evidence consistently shows an intensification of Jewish identification and religious observance since the Oslo War commenced in September 2000. Nevertheless, I decided to ask my non-Orthodox students what they thought.

To my utter disappointment, they all confirmed the report I'd heard earlier. Most had attended a candle lighting sometime during Hanukkah (and all of them had been eating sufganiot religiously- no pun intended). I pointed out to them that all but the most assimilated Jews lit Hanukkah candles. Why then, was the trend among young, coastal Israeli Jews going in the opposite direction?

The answers I received were mixed. Some gave the usual, 'We don't need Judaism to be Jews. We live in Israel. The Jews in the Diaspora need Judaism.' Others, in my opinion tragically, said that not lighting Hanukkah candles is a form of anti-Dati/Haredi protest. In other words, they do it so we flagrantly don't. To this I simply told them that they have no right to let others steal their Judaism from them and that the 'all or nothing,' 'Orthodox or nothing,' 'Haredi or nothing' attitude that rules Israeli society is flaccid, superficial and plain wrong. It is wreaking havoc in secular, traditional, dati and haredi Jewish circles.

Yet, I think something deeper and more insidious is at work here.

Hanukkah contains two themes, one spiritual and the other political. Both have coexisted since the first Hanukkah, with different emphases. During the Second Temple period, the mystique of the Hasmoneans and the existence (or memory) of Jewish political independence, led to the political side being stressed. On the other hand, during the exile, the spiritual side of things was more apt, more inspiring and more relevant. The rise of political Zionism led to a conscious resurrection of the image of the Hasmoneans and of Hanukkah as fights for national independence in Eretz Yisrael (though the historical reality was far more nuanced and complex). Judah Maccabee (along with Bar Kokhba and others) became the protypes for the Jewish struggle for self-determination and independence. That's the way Hanukkah was taught both in Israel and in Zionist oriented schools in the Diaspora.

For the past two decades, and since Oslo especially, everything connected with Eretz Yisrael, Jewish national identity, the right of Jewish self-determination- even the existence of the Jewish People- has been lambasted, ridiculed, denied, besmirched and negate by high visibility academics and their mindless parrots in the media. I strongly suspect, no I'm convinced, that the constant hammering away at anything positive about the Jewish connection to Israel, to Jewish sovereignty and identity has impacted directly upon Hanukkah. In the jargon of the today, young Jews can't 'connect' to the holiday. Absent the spiritual dimension of the festival and its infantilization (which goes with its commercialization), there's nothing left to celebrate.

I closed the class by exploring the concept of national collective memory (a la Halbwachs and Benedict Anderson). I hope I left them with the understanding that without that memory and its commemoration, the State of Israel and the Jewish People, will have no future. The class was quiet. Did anything sink in? Time will tell.

[Note: I've been mulling over how to write this post for almost a week. I finally decided on this formulation during my flight to the US for the Association for Jewish Studies Conference next week in Chicago.]


David said...


You may be aware of a Naomi Shemer song about the Bar-Lev line. I can't find the lyrics off hand, but she uses lines of 'Maoz Tzur' and Chanukah analogy to describe the heroism of banning a bunker post near the Suez Canal. Needless to say, this song was never heard again after 1973. I only know of it from reading old camp song books. It's not a cabal of left-wing intelligentsia who turned Israelis off nationalism with religous overtunes. Many Israelis are fed up with the attrition-and given the mishaps of the past twenty years-from Lebanon on, just don't swallow it anymore.

Jeffrey said...

Needless to say, I disagree. Since the Oslo War started, it's clear that we are not to blame for the situation. If there is a culture (an honor/shame culture) that glorifies war and death and conquest, it's Islam. That has not changed and nothing we do will change it.