Any holiday celebrated with chocolate coins became my instant boyhood favorite. Years before my bar mitzvah I was eager for Hanukkah, when eight nights of candle lighting reminded me of the intrepid Maccabees — and sated my sweet tooth.
Exactly on my 13th birthday I did what was expected of me and gratefully received gifts celebrating my entry into Jewish adulthood. But in my assimilated family a bar mitzvah tacitly marked an exit from Judaism – and, mercifully, from the years of Hebrew school that had offered a dismal alternative to stick-ball and basketball games.
During the two decades that followed, Hanukkah — along with Jewish history and ritual – all but vanished from my consciousness. But when a friend told me about a free trip to Israel, sponsored by the American Jewish Committee to rouse apathetic Jewish academics from their torpor amid rising New Left anti-Zionism on university campuses, I knew that I was a perfect candidate. So did the selection committee, and off I went on the two-week journey that transformed my life. One year later I was teaching American history to Israeli students at Tel Aviv University.
But my boyhood handcuffs of assimilation retained their hold – until Hanukkah. Off my family and I went on a week-long holiday trip to Sinai. I became slightly apprehensive when I saw that among our bus companions were half a dozen yeshiva boys, with their pais and kippot in full display. But during our long ride from Jerusalem they amused my children so I was grateful.
By the time we arrived at our destination it was pitch-black outside. We all struggled to locate our baggage but the yeshiva boys had different priorities. Calling us together they lit the first candle and led us in singing Ma-Oz-Tsur, which I had not heard in 25 years.
Returning to Jerusalem, I was suddenly gripped by the urge to celebrate the last night of Hanukkah at the Western Wall. With no idea what to expect, we arrived at the packed plaza just before nightfall. There was palpable excitement among the visitors. As a beautiful tenor voice began to sing the blessing there was a loud “whoosh.” Eight oil-filled vessels burst into light, illuminating the Wall. By the hundreds, we all sang Ma-Oz-Tsur together.
That experience sparked my annual ritual of reading The First Book of Maccabees during the week-long celebration. My textual markings from long ago remain my guide. “In those days there came forth out of Israel lawless men” to whom King Antiochus gave permission to behave “according to the manner of the Gentiles.” They repudiated the “holy covenant; they joined themselves to the Gentiles, and sold themselves to do evil.” The Temple was desecrated and looted, “and there was great mourning” throughout Israel.
But Mattathias “saw the blasphemous things that were done in Judah and in Jerusalem.” He and his sons “rent their garments and covered themselves with sackcloth, and mourned greatly.” And they did even more. Mattathias proclaimed: I and my sons and brethren walk in the covenant of our fathers. Heaven forbid that we should forsake the Law and its ordinances.” With his zeal ignited when a Jew came forward to offer a sacrifice at the King’s command, he slew him on the alter and cried out “Let everyone that is zealous for the Law and that would maintain the covenant come forth after me” – and he fled with his sons into the mountains.
His son Judah led the return to the desolate sanctuary on Mount Zion. On the twenty-fifth of Kislev they rededicated the altar and “the whole congregation of Israel ordained that “the days of the dedication of the alter should be kept in their seasons year by year for eight days.” So it has been ever since.
Even though nothing is said in The First Book of Maccabees about the legendary cruse of oil that burned for eight days (and claimed its place in my boyhood memory) I am content to reread it, light the candles that flicker with enduring power – and nibble another chocolate coin in celebration and commemoration.
Jerold S. Auerbach is a frequent contributor to The Algemeiner.