Hashing out the Hanukkah story

The literary/cultural critic and devout atheist Christopher Hitchens is famous for disliking Mother Teresa.

So it should come as no surprise that he’s taking swipes at Hanukkah.

seedo_onlineWED_01_hitchensBut it’s worth pointing out because, well, who attacks Hanukkah?

Hitchens calls the long-ago triumph of the semi-fundamentalist Maccabean Jews over the Hellenism of the Syrian Greeks the “triumph of tribal Jewish backwardness.”

He writes: “When the fanatics of Palestine won that victory, and when Judaism repudiated Athens for Jerusalem, the development of the whole of humanity was terribly retarded.”

Hitch even goes after liberal Rabbi Michael Lerner for liking Hanukkah.

Lerner is fighting back, asking readers first to read Hitch’s diatribe: “After you’ve read it all, you could try to figure out why anyone with a serious intellectual curiosity would give a moment’s attention to Hitchens’ intellectual clownishness.”

c_ml_photoLerner (right) also cites a recent column about Hanukkah by the NYT’s David Brooks, who writes about the messiness of the good guy/bad guy Hanukkah story.

Brooks writes of the Festival of Lights: “It commemorates an event in which the good guys did horrible things, the bad guys did good things and in which everybody is flummoxed by insoluble conflicts that remain with us today.”

Whether you agree with him or not, Brooks’ take on the holiday is worth reading and giving some thought.

Lerner writes of Brooks:


Brooks is entirely right to raise the fact that in the actual struggle, the Maccabees were often brutal in imposing their religious system on others and in using violence to achieve their ends. But David Brooks has been a supporter of using violent means to achieve democratic ends in the Middle East. I’d feel more convinced by Brooks if he had raised the same objections to celebrating July 4th or Veterans’ Day in the U.S. Why raise these issues around Chanukah but not about the use of the atomic bomb against Japan’s civilian population. And how does imposing “democracy” at the point of a gun on societies that are resistant to it on a higher moral scale than imposing some other relgious, ethical or ideological system through violence?

Introducing…No Limit Texas Dreidel

As Hanukkah begins this evening…

If you’ve ever played the Dreidel game, you know that it can get old fast.

imagesYou take turns spinning the top-like Dreidel. Depending on which of four Hebrew letters comes up, you either win the pot (of pennies, candies, whatever), win half the pot, lose what you have or lose a turn.

And that’s it.

So I laughed when I learned that a company called ModernTribe.com has jazzed up the old Dreidel game by inventing No Limit Texas Dreidel, a game that combines Dreidel with poker.


Their website proclaims: “Experience Dreidel in a whole new way.”

The Greenburgh Hebrew Center is holding a No Limit Texas Dreidel tournament next Thursday (Dec. 17) at 7 p.m. If you want to take a look, visit their website at
www.g-h-c.org or call (914) 693-4261.

Defining Hanukkah (quickly)

Happy Hanukkah (or Chanukkah).

The little Jewish holiday that could.

It’s so hard to explain what Hanukkah is about (I mean in a short and meaningful way). So I checked some “definitions” (looking for one to adopt):

From Merriam-webster.com: “an 8-day Jewish holiday beginning on the 25th of Kislev and commemorating the rededication of the Temple of Jerusalem after its defilement by Antiochus of Syria.”

Okay, but a little too dictionaryish.

From Judaism 101: “Chanukkah, the Jewish festival of rededication, also known as the festival of lights, is an eight day festival beginning on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev.


From Torah.org: “The Talmud tells us that beginning with the 25th of Kislev, eight days of Chanukah are observed, during which no eulogies are delivered, nor is fasting permitted. For when the Greeks entered the Sanctuary, they defiled all the oils, and when the Hasmoneans (the Maccabees) defeated them, they searched and found only one remaining jar of oil with the seal of the Kohen Gadol (the High Priest). Although it contained only enough oil to burn for one day, a miracle occurred, and the oil burned eight days. A year later the Rabbis designated these days as Yomim Tovim (Holidays) on which praise and thanksgiving were to be said. (Tractate Shabbat 21).”

Solid, but too long…

From About.com: “Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights, begins this year on Sunday night, December 21. The eight-day festival is a celebration of Jewish national survival and religious freedom.”

Pretty good, without too many words.

From My Jewish Learning: “Hanukkah, or the Festival of Rededication, celebrates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after its defilement by the Syrian Greeks in 164 BCE. Although it is a late addition to the Jewish liturgical calendar, the eight-day festival of Hanukkah has become a beloved and joyous holiday. It is also known as the Festival of Lights and takes place in December, at the time of year when the days are shortest in the northern hemisphere.”

Not bad, but no mention of religious freedom.

I’ll keep looking….

ADD: Rabbi Chaim Z. Ehrenreich of the Chabad Jewish Enrichment Center in Chestnut Ridge suggests the Chabad Jewish Enrichment Center website: “Chanukah — the eight-day festival of light that begins on the eve of Kislev 25 — celebrates the triumph of light over darkness, of purity over adulteration, of spirituality over materialism.”

Very interesting. This paragraph goes for the Big Themes. It draws you in. But you have to read on to get the lyrical details:

“More than twenty-one centuries ago, the Holy Land was ruled by the Seleucids (Syrian-Greeks), who sought to forcefully  Hellenize the people of Israel. Against all odds, a small band of faithful Jews defeated one of the mightiest armies on earth, drove the Greeks from the land, reclaimed the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and rededicated it to the service of G-d.

When they sought to light the Temple’s menorah, they found only a single cruse of olive oil that had escaped contamination by the Greeks; miraculously, the one-day supply burned for eight days, until new oil could be prepared under conditions of ritual purity.

To commemorate and publicize these miracles, the sages instituted the festival of Chanukah. At the heart of the festival is the nightly menorah lighting: a single flame on the first night, two on the second evening, and so on till the eighth night of Chanukah, when all eight lights are kindled.”