Chanukah, cynicism and belief

November 27, 2013 by

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A few years ago I was the counselor for a group of immigrant students in Israel. The first activity that I was asked to run out was on Chanukah. My initial reaction was to use every means to try and avoid the task, because as far as I’m concerned the educational function of Chanukah as a festival ended after elementary school. Dreidels, Chanukah menorahs, jelly doughnuts, Chanukah gelt … you grow out of it after you lose your milk teeth, in my opinion. Add to that, from the perspective of my twenty-three years, I was convinced that if I had not experienced any miracles personally, there were no such things.

Finally, living in Israel, with our strong, established army, not only was it unlikely I would ever have to undergo a war of “the few against the many” like the Hasmoneans, but I also believed that the very idea of a war of few against many creates distortions within the Israeli political system regarding our relations with our Arab neighbors …

Anyway, let’s get back to the impending educational activity.

As the festival grew closer I spent all my time trying to reverse the decision to carry out the said Chanukah activity.  I think I succeeded in rejecting something like twenty suggestions that my boss suggested – with great patience it must be said. Chanukah, in my view, was not a festival, and I wasn’t prepared to hear otherwise. To my great regret, this didn’t interest my boss, and she decided that there would be an activity. Whether I liked it or not.

Of course, like almost everything else she insisted on, the Chanukah activity became one of my most important experiences as an educator. Not because of the activity itself, but because of the thought process which accompanied it.

So what aspect of Chanukah could be relevant for me?

I tried to think about what would happen if I had been a “Hasmonean” … I would have enlisted for the sake of my country, I would have fought against all odds for my freedom … that’s how I and my generation in Israel were educated. If we connect to our passion, everything’s possible.

But these days we know that however much me and my generation were pushed to find their desire, what is known as the generation Y is stuck in process of seeking and not in finding employment. So “fighting for your passion” wasn’t the right road to go down.

I tell you what, though. If I had been a Hasmonean I know what wouldn’t have happened. If I had been Judah the Maccabee, I wouldn’t have even tried to light the menorah with oil left for only one day. It wouldn’t have occurred to me even to try. I would have assumed in advance that there was no point in lighting the menorah if it was going to go out almost immediately.

Just as I assumed in advance that not only would it be a bad idea to carry out a Chanukah activity, but that there was no way I had anything new to learn from it.

The truth is that if the Chanukah story were to take place today, I think that not only would I not try to light the menorah, but most of us wouldn’t give the attempt a second thought. In the end, the Chanukah activity was about this question exactly – how many times in our life does a negative way of thinking lead us not to try at all.

This issue is even greater for educators. We educators act as a personal role model in many things that we do consciously and unconsciously. In his book, “Teaching as a subversive activity”, Neil Postman says writes of negating the learner’s creative thinking. He suggests that children enter school as question marks, and leave as periods.

We too reject a young person’s idea for a project because we think that there isn’t enough money for it. We reject the possibility of becoming excited by our experiences when we react cynically to ceremonies, people, or newspaper headlines. Everyday we reject so many things, and we risk teaching the children we educate to reject them and to protect themselves from new experiences with the help of negativity.

I believe that the message of the Hasmoneans for us today is not that they won the rebellion, but that through positive thinking we can open the door to miracles. 

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