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The Daily Need

Jews who went to the gymnasium (or the real history of Hanukkah)

Hanukkah came early this year, beating Christmas out by a good 24 days. For me — and I think for a lot of other Jewish people — Hanukkah really only became big because it happens to fall close to Christmas. The presents? That’s us trying to stay competitive during the holiday season. My father still remembers a time when he and his siblings got pennies, or gelt, for Hanukkah, not presents under the menorah.

At its heart, Hanukkah is just a fun, little festival where we light candles, sing songs, eat some tasty fried potato dishes, and celebrate a story that, when you get right down to it, doesn’t resemble Christmas at all. In fact, within the story of Hanukkah are some surprising revelations that a lot of Jews — including, until recently, myself — may be unaware of. On this, the last night of the holiday, I thought I might share some of them with you.

If you don’t know the story of Hanukkah, it’s about the takeover of Israel by the Greek Seleucid Empire, which ruled a great deal of the Middle East from 312 to 63 BCE. The Seleucid emperor, Anthiochus IV, forced the Jews to worship gods from the Greek pantheon and oppressed anyone who tried to observe monotheism. Eventually, a man named Judah Hasmon (also known as “the Maccabee,” which means “the hammer”) and his four brothers led a revolt against the Seleucids. Through some brilliant maneuvering and guerilla warfare, they were finally able to eject the Greeks from their land, and Israel became a free nation again.

But when the jubilant people returned to the temple in Jerusalem, they discovered that the invaders had left it in shambles. They also found that the menorah, the seven-branched candelabrum that was relit daily, only had enough oil for one day. So the Jews used what little oil was left and celebrated their victory. Through a miracle, the menorah stayed lit for eight full days, which are now commemorated on the eight nights of Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights.

As stories go, this one is pretty cracker jack. But if you look a little closer at its history, you’ll see that it’s quite a bit more complex, with no clear heroes and villains, and a surprising twist on what the conflict was actually about.

For one thing, Israel had not been an independent nation for quite a long time. It had been successively passed around by a few empires after the Babylonian takeover, and just before this story takes place, it had been made part of the Ptolemaic Empire. The Ptolemies ruled Egypt and the Nile Delta. Like the Seleucids, they were Greek in origin and were a part of a Hellenistic culture that touted gymnasia, Olympic-style games, mystery rites and philosophers like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Some Jews chafed under this rule by an alien culture, but many of them may have enjoyed it.

In her book, “Doubt: A History,” Jennifer Michael Hecht posits that Jews and Greeks originally had quite a friendly relationship and that many Jews were enthusiastic to adopt certain aspects of Greek culture. “The secularist Jewish community began to see the empire and the Greek philosophical tradition as a significant part of their identity… the Jews who enjoyed Hellenistic culture may not have felt any less Jewish, seeing nothing ill in the Greek invitation to civic celebrations, universalist moral philosophy, exercise and education in the Gymnasium, a sense of progress, and a prosperous future for the kids.”

The first Book of Maccabees seems to back this story up, though its author doesn’t seem very pleased about it:

[S]ome of the people eagerly went to the king. He authorized them to observe the ordinances of the Gentiles. So they built a gymnasium in Jerusalem, according to Gentile custom, and removed the marks of circumcision, and abandoned the holy covenant. They joined with the Gentiles and sold themselves to do evil.

Certainly, there were a number of pious Jews who were upset that their people were spending time at the Greek gymnasium instead of the temple, not to mention surgically reversing their circumcisions (those were some committed secularists). The rift between the pious and the apostate Jews became even greater when the Seleucids defeated the Ptolomies and seized Israel for their own. The new emperor, Antiochus IV, proved to be a lot more enthusiastic about Hellenizing his new conquest than his predecessors. He replaced the old high priest with more progressive, pro-Hellenistic ones, who eventually petitioned him to govern the Jews under common law. This meant that the old Jewish religious and cultural rites became illegal.

As you can imagine, this new development did not sit too well with the traditionalist Jews. The turning point came when Mattathias, the father of Judah Maccabee, saw a Jew attempt to offer sacrifice to the Greek gods in his home town of Modein. “When Mattathias saw it, he burned with zeal and his heart was stirred. He gave vent to righteous anger; he ran and killed him upon the altar. At the same time he killed the king’s officer who was forcing them to sacrifice, and he tore down the altar.”

And so the Maccabean Wars began, not with a Jew killing a Greek, but with a pious Jew killing an apostate Jew. It would not be the last time: “They organized an army, and struck down sinners in their anger and lawless men in their wrath; the survivors fled to the Gentiles for safety. And Mattathias and his friends went about and tore down the altars; they forcibly circumcised all the uncircumcised boys that they found within the borders of Israel.”

So, to recap: a foreign power, steeped in the founding culture of Western civilization, invades and occupies a small Middle Eastern country. The secular inhabitants welcome them, while the more religious faction grows angry at their presence. Eventually this faction rises up, attacking the invaders with guerrilla tactics and killing and terrorizing any of their people they see collaborating with enemies. Sound familiar?

Beyond its ironic parallels with our current conflicts in the Middle East, the situation that the Jews of Israel found themselves in, once they had ejected the Greeks, was similarly paradoxical. The Maccabees gave rise to the Hasmonean Dynasty, a line of kings and queens who were like Jewish versions of the Borgias. They have the dubious honor of being the only Jewish rulers on historical record to demand the conversion of non-Jews by the sword. They were also less than cordial toward their relatives, with one king jailing his mother and brothers and letting them starve so he could gain the throne (apparently not all Jewish men love their mothers). When two Hasmonean brothers sparked a civil war while vying for the throne, they asked the Romans to settle the dispute by backing one of them. This led to the Roman occupation of Judea and, eventually, to the Jews’ long-lasting expulsion from their homeland and the diaspora.

Finally, to end things in a holiday spirit, it should be mentioned that, in seeking the Roman’s assistance, the Hasmoneans inadvertently sounded the death knell of their line. In their place, the Romans gave a man named Herod the kingship of Judea. He would be involved in another story whose details I may not be qualified to discuss. I’ll leave that to others, while I go off to add one more night to the menorah and pray fervently to hit the gimel on my next dreidel roll.

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