The many faces of Chanukah: a view from Australia

December 21, 2008 by

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I have just seen Baz Lurhrmann’s epic film about the place I call home, Australia. Set in the 1940’s, one of the many storylines featured is of a young Aboriginal boy named Nullah, whose captivating dreamtime songs are his best defense against the government policy of removing mixed race children from their families. At the heart of the film is the belief that each human being has a story they must tell in order to exist. This started me thinking about the upcoming festival of Chanukah. Down under, this is a fabulous summer festival that occurs a week into the school holidays during the summer solstice, a time when the sun shines on this wide brown land until way after young children should be up spinning dreidels.

More specifically, I began pondering the conflicting narratives I have been told about why we celebrate the curious post-biblical festival. During my childhood in Israel, I sang songs such as Banu Choshech Legaresh and Anu Nosim Lapidim. From them I learnt that there was no miracle, no jar of oil was found, and that the real heroes were the military fighting forces. Then I looked in the Talmud, where I found that the Greeks defiled all the oil in the Temple bar one cruse of oil, which miraculously lasted eight days.

I heard the story of the Chabad movement, who drive their Chanukah tanks around Caulfield spreading the message that this festival celebrates the triumph of light over darkness, of purity over adulteration, and of spirituality over materiality.

Finally, I learnt the historical story, and found to my surprise that the book of Maccabees does not mention anything about a jar of oil, or a miracle from God. Instead, it speaks of a civil war between two groups of Jews for the dynasty of the priesthood.

I understand why each one of us needs our own story and how so many of the rituals we do lack meaning without stories. But I also tremble about where these stories can lead us. If Chanukah is all about a military victory as is told in the secular Zionist narrative, does that mean that only might is right? That victory only comes when religious zealots such as the Maccabees are empowered? That there is no place for God?

And if it is only a religious victory of monotheism over Hellenism due solely to the hand of God intervening in history, does this mean that God will always intervene when things go wrong?

And finally, if Chanukah is only about a civil war for the priesthood that ultimately led to the Temple’s annihilation one hundred years later, then why celebrate anything at all?

This all brings me back to Baz Luhrmann’s film about dreamtime stories that reverberate through eternity. Is it possible that the reason the majority of the Jewish world barely celebrates other minor festivals such as Lag Ba’omer or Shmini Atzeret is due to these festivals having only one dominant narrative? The many versions of the Chanukah story mean that Jews from all denominations can proudly rejoice in this festival. From the pacifists to the militarists, the atheists to the fundamentalists, there is a deeply gratifying aspect in the Chanukah story to suit every hashkafa (worldview).

Imagine if we could own and tell these multiple narratives to each other in a respectful manner for all the festivals of the year, for the history of Israel and for the story of the Jewish people. Imagine if when we heard the stories of our people, we listened with respect and awe, recognizing the legitimacy of each one. By telling our stories as brightly as the lights of the chanukiot that shine in our windows, we will be taking the first step in ensuring that the Jewish people will always exist as a vibrant pluralistic and nation.

So, what’s your Chanukah story?

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