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Light the Candles, Lose the Oil

As a Jew born of parents who had no desire to appear in any way assimilative to the larger Christian culture in America, I was disabused of the notion that Santa Claus was an actual living person at an early age. In time, like many enlightened Jewish children, I thought it rather funny when I learned that friends of mine still believed in the fat, jolly, bearded goy. When I became a parent, I couldn’t wait to tell my daughters that they didn’t need to feel envious of their non-Jewish friends at Christmastime because yes, Hannah and Stella, there is no Santa Claus. Never was. It’s all a lie, a fiction, like the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy. And they, like me, find it quaint and a little bit creepy when they see a young Christian tot who really believes that the hairy lap they sit on in malls is that of the actual Santa Claus.

Now, there are Jews who grow up with an inferiority complex when it comes to the Christmas vs. Hanukkah competition. Knowing the truth about Santa is one way Jews come to feel better about themselves at this dark, cold, and busy time of year. But then there’s the fact that there are millions of classic Christmas songs and no decent Hanukkah songs to bring back those self-pitying feelings. Still, I think most Jews by the time they become adults have adjusted and accommodated to the split and are fine with their more modest Hanukkah observances. We know we can’t compete, so we don’t even try.

But then I realized that we Jews are guilty of perpetuating our own ridiculous Hanukkah lie. And our crime is perhaps even worse than that of deceitful Christian parents because while Santa lives constantly in the ether of the culture, Jews actively teach this lie to our children in religious school and countless children’s books about the holiday (which also suck). The lie is the story of the miraculous single serving of oil that lasted eight nights. That is the meaning behind the holiday, we tell our children. It was a miracle! Divine intervention! A sign that the Jews truly are God’s chosen people.

Hebrew National kosher baloney. It never happened, of course. How could it? And why should anyone care? It’s a stupid story, one that no modern-day child could relate to. After all, there are no oil lamps in our homes or temples. They’re a fire hazard! The miracle is that our ancestors didn’t burn down the temple when they were rededicating it (though it would have been made of stone and bricks, like the smartest of the Three Little Pigs). But let’s talk about the rededication of the temple, because that most likely happened in some manner.

The real true story of Hanukkah is as follows (rather than rewrite it myself, here is an excerpt from the page on the subject):

Around 200 B.C., Judea—also known as the Land of Israel—came under the control of Antiochus III, the Seleucid king of Syria, who allowed the Jews who lived there to continue practicing their religion. His son, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, proved less benevolent: Ancient sources recount that he outlawed the Jewish religion and ordered the Jews to worship Greek gods. In 168 B.C., his soldiers descended upon Jerusalem, massacring thousands of people and desecrating the city’s holy Second Temple by erecting an altar to Zeus and sacrificing pigs within its sacred walls.

Led by the Jewish priest Mattathias and his five sons, a large-scale rebellion broke out against Antiochus and the Seleucid monarchy. When Mattathias died in 166 B.C., his son Judah, known as Judah Maccabee (“the Hammer”), took the helm; within two years the Jews had successfully driven the Syrians out of Jerusalem, relying largely on guerilla warfare tactics. Judah called on his followers to cleanse the Second Temple, rebuild its altar and light its menorah….

Later rabbis, concerned about the glorification of a military victory, came up with the canard of the oil lasting eight nights. Better for the kinder (Yiddish for children). But it’s a lie. A lie that we are continuing to tell our children more than a score of centuries later. Yet we poke fun of Christians keeping the story of Santa Claus alive. I say it’s time to teach the truth to our children from the get go. Don’t frame it as a military campaign. Position Hanukkah as being about defending the right to practice our religion and our traditions. Why eight nights? Why not? Sukkot lasts a week. Talk about Judah as being a brave and courageous leader. The Hammer? It’s a tool of creation and repair. It can be used to build a sukkah. Kids will get it. We don’t have to lie to them anymore.

Jews: If you can say no to Santa Claus, say no to the miracle of the oil as well.

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