My Hanukkah Memories
Hanukkah was my favorite boyhood holiday. Eight nights of candle lighting, a dreidel to spin, and parental gifts. Best of all, my father would set up my Lionel electric trains for weeks of empowering fun as I controlled their journey across my bedroom floor and through the tunnel beneath my bed. But once past my bar mitzvah, my parents’ assimilationist values prevailed. Hanukkah celebrations faded away and I was free to be a Jew in name only.
Twenty-five years later, as the result of a chance encounter with a former Brandeis colleague, I learned about a free trip to Israel sponsored by the American Jewish Committee for disaffected Jewish academics. I knew that I was qualified; so did the Committee. It became a transformative experience that subsequently propelled me to Jerusalem for a year as Fulbright Professor of American History.
In mid-December our family prepared for a five-day tour of Sinai. Waiting for the bus to arrive and scanning my fellow travelers, I felt instantly uneasy at the presence of five kipa-wearing yeshiva students with long, curly payot. I knew that I was spending a year in the Jewish state, but I hadn’t anticipated that it would be that Jewish.
By the time we reached our Sinai destination night had fallen. While we scrambled in the dark to locate our knapsacks and sleeping bags the yeshiva boys had other priorities. They opened a table, placed a large hanukkiah on it, and called everyone together for the lighting of the first candle of Hanukkah. As we sang Maoz Tsur, the first time I heard it in two decades, the flickering flame rekindled my buried Jewish identity. I had returned to my people.
Arriving back in Jerusalem on the eighth day, I suggested that we go to the Kotel that evening for whatever celebration we might encounter there. When we reached the plaza, it was overflowing with people. The excitement was palpable. We watched and waited. Suddenly there was a loud “whoosh” as eight vats of oil near the top of the Kotel were ignited. Instantly many hundreds — perhaps thousands, but it was too dark to count — of joyous Jews began to sing Maoz Tsur together. It was the experience of a lifetime; its memory resurfaces every year at the moment when I light the first Hanukkah candle.
Not long after our return to the United States I found a copy of the First Book of Maccabees in a second-hand bookstore. H.A. Fischel’s Introduction was enticing. It contextualized the Maccabean revolt in the second century BCE within “the grandiose attempt of the Hellenistic age to create a world-encompassing culture.” That sparked a clash between tyranny and democracy that extended to the Judean hills, triggering “the Jewish struggle for freedom … that climaxed with the restoration of Jewish national sovereignty in the Biblical homeland of the Jewish people.” Hanukkah is its celebration.
The simplicity and power of the narrative is captivating. It begins with the “lawless men” who persuaded King Antiochus to grant them “authority to introduce the customs of the Gentiles,” including “uncircumcision” and repudiation of the “holy covenant.” They stripped the holy Temple of its golden adornment, altar, candlesticks, and other “hidden treasures.” The King dispatched his “chief collector of tribute” to Jerusalem who “took the spoils of the city and burned it with fire“ while “lawless men” shed innocent blood and … defiled the sanctuary.” It was, before the word was invented, a holocaust.
We read of Mattathias, “who saw the blasphemous things that were done in Judah and Jerusalem”: “her infants have been slain in her streets”; “her young men with the sword of the enemy”; “and behold, our holy things, and our beauty, and our glory have been laid waste … and Mattathias and his sons rent their garments and covered themselves with sackcloth, and mourned greatly.”
But Mattathias did more than mourn. He insisted: “I and my sons and my brethren walk in the covenant of our fathers. Heaven forbid that we should forsake the Law.” When a Jew came forward to sacrifice on the altar Mattathias’s “zeal was kindled, and his heart quivered, and his indignation burst forth for judgment, so that he ran and slew him on the altar.” Then he called out: “Let everyone that is zealous for the Law and that would maintain the covenant come forth after me!” With his sons and followers he fled to the mountains and the revolt of the Maccabees had begun. Nearing death, Mattathias instructed them: “give your lives for the covenant of your fathers.” Judah Maccabeus, “strong and mighty from his youth,” would lead them.
Returning to Jerusalem on the twenty-fifth day in the month of Kislev, Judah told them: “It is better for us to die in battle than to look upon the evils that have come upon our nation and the Holy Place.” Conquering their Gentile enemies, they ascended mount Zion to rebuild and rededicate their holiest place. They saw “our sanctuary laid desolate, and the altar profaned.” After reconstructing it they “fell upon their faces, and worshipped and gave praise unto heaven.” Judah, his followers, and “the whole congregation of Israel ordained that the dedication of the altar should be kept … year by year for eight days.”
Ever since, we light candles to celebrate the triumph of the Maccabees “with gladness and joy.” Rereading the First Book of Maccabees, I can, if only vicariously, return to the Kotel and experience one of the grandest moments in Jewish history.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel 1896-2016, chosen for Mosaic by Ruth Wisse and Martin Kramer as a Best Book for 2019.