Monthly Archives: December 2014

The Real Story

“True story of Hanukkah?” you may ask. “Isn’t there only one story?” You’d probably be referring to the tale of the Jewish festival of lights, which celebrates the Maccabean Revolt (167-160 BCE), and the narrative that Jewish rebel Judas Maccabeus vanquished the evil Greek emperor Antiochus and rededicated the Temple, at which the miracle of the oil occurred. Only… this isn’t the whole story. (For a great historical overview of the Hanukkah story click here)

But before I reveal the whole story, I share with you a thought. Why have we conspired to keep the story of Hanukkah in the dark? Why do we relegate it to a relatively juvenile passive tale of a miracle happening to us?

Hanukkah has become a significant festival only in the last 75-100 years in a desperate attempt to keep up with the ever more commercial mayhem that is Christmas. With advertising for Christmas starting the first day after Halloween, some Jewish parents need a counterweight, something to divert their kids’ attention to a Jewish theme. In the old days Hanukkah was about lighting candles, eating latkes, spinning dreidels, gambling with chocolate gelt, and maybe opening a tchotchke or two. Now it’s presents and more presents and an easily digestible story.

The Hanukkah story was all but lost by the second century. In fact someone asks the question in the Talmud, “What is Hanukkah?” This is not a pedagogic technique. I think the questioner sincerely challenges his colleagues to share their thoughts. It’s only then that we hear the story of the oil lasting 8 days hence 8 nights of Hanukkah… Nice story. Only…

Spoiler alert… Only the real story of Hanukkah is not about the miracle of oil. The eight days was all about the festival of Sukkot lasting eight days. Confused? It seems that in 164 BCE, when Sukkot time came along, the Temple in Jerusalem was in the hands of the enemy. Therefore our ancestors could not observe this 8 day holiday. We’re not in tune with the Jewish holiday cycle and its agrarian roots. But for our ancestors, the agricultural aspects were primary components of the holiday. Not to observe Sukkot, the festival of the Fall harvest, was experienced as bad form, if not bad karma. What if it cursed the harvest? When the Temple was reclaimed, our ancestors decided that they would start off the rededication by practicing Sukkot; better late than never.

Why does the miracle of the oil story hold sway over the ‘real’ story? At its heart the story of Hanukkah is about revolutionaries evicting a foreign culture and its acolytes. It’s about a corrupt institution (the Temple) being challenged by those who depended on its sanctity. It’s also about a people who were striving to hold the line against innovation and reform, who believed that any change was bad and destructive. All of which is to say that the real Hanukkah story is like lots of stories: good guys acting like bad guys and vice versa. It’s like the home team that slowly gets lazy and indolent and the outsiders prepare to pounce. It’s about how a small force can bring havoc down on the heads of a large established nation and its army. Do you see the problem? We love the Maccabees and their courage. We hate their fundamentalist coercion and their binary worldview. We applaud their audacious unmasking of the corrupt priesthood. We are appalled when the Maccabean descendants themselves become corrupt.

The real story leaves us with many more questions and dilemmas. Is it any wonder that our ancestors went for Hanukkah ‘lite’? It’s so much easier to take the story out of the realm of human foibles and greed, placing it instead in God’s hands, make about the triumph of light over darkness.

Just this morning I taught the TBA preschoolers the miracle of the oil Hanukkah story. That’s how our children should start learning about this holiday. But it does us no good to stay with that story alone. Our Judaism must be openhearted enough to embrace the subtle meaning of miracles of light. It must also be hardheaded enough to withstand the ambivalent message of how the Jewish people have sought to change the way we do things and how sometimes we are our own worst enemy.

Our only hope is to be honest and forthright about our past and to stand in the present with integrity. We cannot afford to wait for another miracle story. This time we’re the ones who must bring the light. We have to make the miracle with our own hands and love and sweat and pain. That’s the real Hanukkah story.

I Can’t Breathe

My nephew Ben, my sister Marta’s younger son, is an interesting guy. He is funny. He is sensitive. He is big. He is quirky. He’s on the spectrum. And he’s black.

Ben has been lurking in my consciousness for weeks and weeks now, sometimes on the edges and other times up close. I’m worried about him. In fact I fear for his life. Because he is everything that could turn him into a target of law enforcement attention.

There is not a less violent person than my nephew. Ben doesn’t act out or make a scene. But if you know autistic people then you know that one of the major issues in their lives is not being tuned in to subtle and not so subtle social signals.  For instance I could imagine a police officer coming over to him and saying, “What are you doing here?” The right answer is short and sweet; something like, “I’m picking up my brother from work”, or “I’m going to the movies.” The answer must not be even vaguely provocative. But I could imagine Ben answering something like, “I don’t know. What are you doing here?” Not because he wants to challenge the officer’s authority, but just because he might think it amusing. In such a situation it is almost inevitable that the situation would escalate. Ben doesn’t know the script or understand exactly just how dangerous it is out there for him. Because Ben wouldn’t know the proper thing to say. Because Ben is black.

We know how dangerous it is out there for my nephew. I’ve watched the You Tube clips that you’ve seen. I’ve read the articles about Eric Garner and Michael Brown and Tamir Rice and others, so many others. We are living in a time of tremendous cultural stress. The force that supports divisiveness is colliding with the progressive force that supports unity. An innocent black child with a pellet gun is shot and killed by police in a nation with a black president and a black attorney general. Are we in this together or is it the good guys versus the bad guys?

As a Reform rabbi, I am heartsick over the pain and the suffering of the African American community and all people of color. Rabbi Rick Jacobs recently wrote on behalf of the URJ: “We support Attorney General Eric Holder’s federal investigation. Systemic change is needed, and state, local and municipal governments are key partners, especially working with police and community representatives, to begin the process of healing and strengthening that must be done… While our institutions need critical reform, this kind of change must also be addressed through reflection and commitment – from individuals and a diverse array of communities – to transforming what is wrong in America regarding race. The religious community can and must lead this transformation, and we are committed to playing a leadership role to move the conversation, and our country, forward.” As a rabbi with congregants of color, I am more committed than ever to assure that our temple will always provide safe, loving space. If people are interested in that discussion, I would welcome it with open arms. As a rabbi with young men of color who belong to our temple, I want to do something to help them so as not to be crushed by this dialectic.

As Ben’s uncle? I worry so much. Our nation grows less interested in connections and more in sides. I love that young man and find it heartbreaking that such innocence and naïveté in his black skin is a dangerous liability. I don’t exactly know what I can do to help, but clearly something must be done. As the husband of a black woman and the father of a black son, New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio, said: “People need to know that black lives and brown lives matter as much as white lives.”

Shabbat Shalom,