One of our 8th graders, Noah, in Project Gadol (our monthly teen learning program) challenged me this week to teach about Hanukkah and last month’s events in Pittsburgh, at the same time making sure this all related to cookie decorating. Noah claimed that Hanukkah was made up to compete with Christmas.
Cracking my knuckles and stretching my forearms, I began. “You’re right,” I said, “but you’re also a bit wrong.”
Hanukkah feels like a pretty big deal to Jews in America. It is by far the most commercialized of Jewish festivals. Religion Reporter Emma Green at The Atlantic, who met with our 6th/7th graders last week to talk about covering religion in America and her own Jewish identity as a journalist, sums up the American contribution to many Hanukkah “traditions” beautifully in her article here. That’s where Noah was right.
But here’s where he was wrong:
Historically, Hanukkah was a minor festival to Jews living in the land of Israel and their counterparts living in the diaspora after the days of the original Maccabean revolt in what was then the land of Babylonia (and what is now the lands of modern day Iraq and Iran).
A good 600 years after the Maccabean revolt, a small paragraph about Hanukkah appears in the Babylonian Talmud. The line in there of particular interest to us says, “it is the custom to put the Hanukkah lamps in the window to publicize the miracle, but in a time of a danger, it is sufficient to put them on the table instead.”
This strange comment prompts later Rabbis to ask, what kind of danger would prohibit a Jew from putting his Hanukkah lamp in the window? Rashi, probably the most famous of Jewish commentators, provided the answer 600 years later: because the Persians had a law on their holidays that fire could only burn in their temples.
Thanks Rashi for solving that mystery! The Persian majority culture at the time of the Rabbis of the Talmud in Babylonian were followers of an ancient faith called Zoroastrianism (which yes, in case you were wondering, is a real thing and is still around today in small numbers!). Around the same time as Hanukkah, celebrated at the winter equinox, the Zoroastrians seemed to have had their own fire festival and had a law that fire could only burn in their temples. Apparently, the Zoroastrian fire priests would go around enforcing this law by putting out Hanukkah lamps of unsuspecting Jews!
The quirky intercultural exchange of Zoroastrian fire priests trying to extinguish the Hanukkah lamps of well-intentioned Jews aside, this text teaches us something historical about Hanukkah. Hanukkah seems to have drawn some of its own significance from its proximity to this Zoroastrian winter fire festival—the story of the oil burning and the customs of lighting the candles coming into centrality and focus only in the lands of Babylonia (and only found in texts from those lands).
It turns out that Jews have been absorbing and accenting our own traditions in the light of others for centuries, not just based on the last 100 years of commercialization of Christmas. You might say at this point, it’s a tradition and a deeply authentic Jewish act in and of itself, to look at the world around you and to see yourself and your Judaism in it.
And Pittsburgh? When I asked our learners if they felt they were living in a time of danger and were afraid to put the Hanukkah lamps in their windows or in the window of JCP, they all agreed: Maybe there are places where Jews should feel more alone and more vulnerable, but New York City is not one of them. What another miracle—a group of teenagers finding Jewish community in their own neighborhood, finding a deep sense of faith and conviction and fellowship in each other, and feeling warmth and optimism about their own futures as Jews in America.
And then, we decorated cookies. To publicize the miracle, of course.
To however you celebrate, may this Hanukkah be filled with light, laughter, and love!
Erin Beser is JCP’s Director of Community Learning and Engagement.