Given my views concerning every Jew’s right to inalienable Jewish legitimacy solely by dint of being Jewish, I wish I were more ambivalent about Thanksgivukkah. But during the lead-up to Turkey Day 2013, I kept finding my thoughts flashing to the 1970s Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups commercials and thinking, “You got Thanksgiving in my Chanukah.” “You got Chanukah in my Thanksgiving.”
If you’re one of the many American Jews who found joy and meaning in this once-in-a-lifetime holiday convergence, I think that’s great. For me, I prefer my Thanksgiving Day to remain universally open to all in its basically secular reach, and my Chanukah nights to be particularly and pointedly Jewtastic.
I do get the gist of the Jew joy that happened this week. Chanukah is a minor holiday and, for once, liberal Jewish parents didn’t have to worry about rolling out the holiday for little Jewish kids in direct competition to Christmas. Besides the fact that the gang’s all together on Thanksgiving anyway, so really, who’s coming back again on Saturday for a latke party? And when you grow up liberal Jewish, it’s very easy to end up an adult who takes Jewish holidays for granted, lightly, both, or often not at all.
When you’re a Jew-by-choice, however, you tend to see things differently. It’s not a canard that many JBCs take Judaism–holidays and all–a little more deeply than many non-Orthodox Jews-by-birth. No matter your Jewish origins, though, there’s real meaning in Chanukah. But with Jewish holidays, it helps to engage with them, think about them, turn them over and over, to really figure out not just what they stand for, but how they stand for you.
In the traditional telling, Chanukah commemorates the re-dedication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem by the Maccabee rebels after winning political control back from the Syriac-Greeks in the 2nd century BCE. Only enough ritually pure oil was found in the Temple to last for one night, but “a great miracle happened there” and the oil lasted for eight. And so we light candles for eight nights to celebrate the miracle of the oil and the blessing of Jewish self-determination and continuity in the face of assimilation.
In the non-bullshit telling, the Macabees are identified as the religious zealots they actually were, who won a bloody war against moderate Jews who were comfortable assimilating with Syriac-Greek society, a war in which the Syriac-Greeks intervened. Because the seven days of Sukkot, in ancient times Judaism’s highest holiday, and the following festival day of Shemini Atzeret, were unable to be observed during the war, the combined holidays were observed late after the Temple was secured.
A few hundred years later, after the fall of the Second Temple made it practically and politically impossible to observe Sukkot publicly, a fictitious “miracle of the oil” backstory was applied to Chanukah to give Jews a private opportunity to celebrate those eight nights on the down-low in the comfort of their own homes. As for the Maccabees, as rulers they continued their zealotry and oppressed approaches to Judaism that differed from their own.
None of which means there’s nothing to celebrate in Chanukah. Asshats or not, the Maccabees still represent Jewish continuity in the face of oppression. You can take that even further and glean from the holiday not just communal self-determination, but personal Jewish self-determination as Jews. I don’t agree with the Maccabees’ violent tendencies. But I do agree with the right of all Jews to be Jews and make their own Jewish decision as they personally see fit–andnot as other Jews see fit for them. (Which of course is why I think it’s awesome if the concept of Thanksgivukkah worked for you.) And unless you’re a Biblical literalist, it doesn’t really matter why we started lighting those eight candles as long as we keep on lighting them–and thinking about why we’re doing it.
So for me, Chanukah at its deepest is about my right, and yours, to be Jewish–or whatever religion or tradition with which you identify and which fills you up. We all have the right to have a personal connection between ourselves and however we conceive the organizing principle of the Universe. I light candles for eight nights, and I thank God for making me a Jew–with all the potential for Jewish self-perpetuation that comes with it. Including the right not to give into assimilationist pressure from either the surrounding non-Jewish culture, or from any particular Jewish community which may claim that to be authentically Jewish you have to be believe exactly as they do. (And lest the liberal Jews reading this think I’m talking about Orthodoxy, I’m talking about all denominations, because we all try to pull this crap from time to time.)
And that doesn’t jibe necessarily for me with Thanksgiving. Call me selfish, but on Thanksgiving I’m thankful for all the wonderful people with whom I share my life. We already do that in Judaism, though–on Pesach. During the festival of lights, instead, I’m simply thankful for being as God made me: a Jew, legitimately and and forever.
And for me, that gratitude has no need for a side of cranberry sauce.