Or is it Chanukah? I never know which spelling to use. But I do know the story of Hanukkah.
Many years ago, it is said, in the land of Judea, there was an evil Syrian king named Antiochus IV who set out to destroy the Jews and their religion. Some say Antiochus may have been taking advantage of an ongoing struggle between orthodox Jews and their reformed Hellenic counterparts, who were seeking to assimilate into the Greek culture that had come to dominate the land after the time of Alexander the Great. Under Antiochus, Jews were persecuted and brutalized by the Greeks, and their temples taken over by Hellenic priests.
Finally, the Jews, led by a man they named Judah the Macabee (“The Hammer”), rose up against Antiochus, in a war whose inciting event was the killing of a Hellenic Jewish sympathizer by a more traditional Jew. The war lasted 25 years, and ultimately, the Macabees were victorious over Antiochus’ forces.
After one of the decisive final battles of the war, the Macabees returned to Jerusalem and set about to rededicate their temple. The Macabees built a new candlabra (menorah) and lit it. While there was only a day’s worth of holy oil for it, the lamp stayed lit for a full 8 days until a new supply of oil could be gotten. And that is the miracle of Hanukkah.
Today, Jews, Orthodox and reformed alike, celebrate Hanukah by lighting the menorah – one candle each night for 8 nights, each candle lit by the central candle called the Shamash. To remember the miracle of the oil, one eats foods cooked in oil. Hence, the venerable fried potato pancake, or Latke. (Also donuts.)
The Irony of Chanukah
I love Chanukah, probably mostly because I love lighting our Menorah. (We got it the year our oldest daughter was born.) And even more than lighting candles, I love latkes. And getting together with friends and their children for parties.
But it saddens me to think that our family traditions are really based on the outcome of a religious war fought centuries ago between the Greeks and the Jews, possibly even between factions of the Jews themselves. That a bloody war can give us such wonderful family traditions is testimony to what centuries of light, songs and good food can do to eradicate the memory of war and adversity.
Someday perhaps we will have a food we serve to celebrate the time when man stopped waging war against his fellow man in the name of religion. What kind of food would it be, do you think?
It would need to be a food that melds the culinary traditions of all the world’s religions and peoples. A wonderful stew, perhaps, that marries the warmth of the potato with the meat of the sacrificial lamb and wine, along with the olives of Greece and the spices and fruits of Africa and the Middle East, served from a communal bowl and eaten with a flat, soft unleavened bread. We would invite our friends from every religion we knew to share it with us, sitting around a table lit by candles, perhaps on a cold night near the winter solstice. The more different religions represented at our table, the more we would all be blessed.
I can only hope to see that meal, and that world, in my lifetime.
Until then, at least there will be Latkes. (Here’s our recipe.)