A Chanukah Story as told to a 12 year old

For Hampshire Life
Published: 12/27/2019 4:15:26 PM
Modified: 12/27/2019 4:15:15 PM

Not all of us were fighters.

We were scholars. We were dreamers. We were fierce debaters who never shied from an argument. We built schools of thought. We were the world’s earliest adopters of Wikipedia.

(No, I’m serious – we have the Torah, the big book, but also the Talmud, the book in which all the rabbis duke it out over what the Torah means. The Talmud is written just like a Wikipedia article, where all the rabbis across the generations get to weigh in and argue with each others’ ideas. They even use citations.)

We weren’t all fighters, but we were incredible learners. We were a people who knew how to look at new ideas and confront them, argue with them, and, in many cases, incorporate the best parts of them into our own lives.

It makes us very good at blending in, sometimes.

Many Jews in Ancient Greece were wonderful at blending in. They took many of the ideas of the Ancient Greek scholars, artists and thinkers and brought them into their lives. They began to say, “I’m not Jewish; I’m Ancient Greek.”

For some people, blending is a sign of progress.

For others, it is a threat.

Most of us fall uneasily in the middle.

The hard part about being good at blending in is that you sometimes start to miss things. When the government starts to suggest that real Ancient Greeks worship many gods, not just one, and that anyone who doesn’t isn’t a real Ancient Greek, you may not take it personally.

You may not notice when the Ancient Greek government starts to make rules that chip away at your right to practice your religion. Rules that say: you must be like us, or else.

The hard part about seeing everything as a threat to your way of life is that you spend more time defending your way of life than living your way of life. You look at the new government rules, and even though they’re only small steps, you see horrible conclusions. Your imagination starts to hurt you more than the rules do.

And as things often do, they did, in fact, get worse. There was an Ancient Greek king called Antiochus, who stabbed at the very heart of Jewish life, in the part of Ancient Greece that was so Jewish it was called Judea.

Antiochus sent his army to trash the Temple.

Not like the one I go to — the modest buildings of today — the Temple was the center of all Jewish life in Judea. In fact, the Temple was in the city of Jerusalem, a city that has held its name for thousands of years, no matter what the country around it was called.

Antiochus and his army went into the Temple and wrecked it. They smashed the statues and tore the tapestries. They broke windows and sacrificed a pig on the holy altar. A pig! Do you know how insulting that is to Jews? Spilling a pig’s blood in the temple was the ultimate act of disrespect.

The Jews who had worked so hard to blend in with the Ancient Greeks didn’t know what to do. Their way of life had been attacked, seemingly overnight. They watched in horror as Antiochus banned Jewish rituals from the Temple, and forbade Jews to study the Torah.

And the Jews who had seen the threat coming, who had been called paranoid and fanatic and crazy — they were sprang into action. At their center was a priest named Mattityahu — Matthew, in English — and his five sons. The youngest son was named Judah.

Mattityahu and his followers knew that they were no match for Antiochus’s army, so they did what every small group of fighters does against a large and unstoppable force.

They used assassination to strike terror into the hearts of the Greeks — but not just the Greeks! To Mattityahu and his followers, the real enemies were the Jews who had blended in. The Jews who had adopted Greek rituals and Greek culture.

So the first person they killed was a Jew.

Most people don’t know this part. They’d rather look at Mattityahu — and later, Judah, who took over the fight after his death — as a hero. A freedom fighter.

They would rather only talk about the second man to be killed – one of Antiochus’s goons, sent to enforce the new rules of the Temple. A man just “doing his job.”

After his father Mattityahu died, Judah, the youngest son, became commander in the fight. He led his followers into a year-long rebellion. And at the end of one year, Judah had something big to show for all the death and fighting: they had the Temple back.

The story goes that they came into the Temple, and looked around, sickened at what they saw. The sacred place they had worked so hard to build into something glorious and beautiful and worthy had been destroyed.

It was dark inside. The oil lamps that kept the light in the Temple had been emptied; all the oil had been stolen.

The Jewish fighters — the Maccabis, they were called — looked among the piles of trash and brokenness until they found one small, sealed jug of oil. So small. Too small to light the many branches of the menorah, the big temple lamp.

What were they supposed to do? They poured the oil into the seven branches of the menorah, and lit them. It would take a week to produce more oil, but they should at least show the city that the Temple was back in its rightful owners’ hands.

The lamp burned bright and long into the first night as they began to clean up the damage and repair the Temple. People from around the city must have seen the light coming from the Temple’s broken windows. Maybe they came to help, joining the Maccabi fighters as the great rebuilding began.

By the time the sun came up, the lamp was still burning. And then, the story goes, it didn’t stop burning until enough time had passed to make more oil. The miracle is this: once the lamp was re-lit, it never stopped burning.

And that’s where one story ends.

History, though — it tells us that the fight continued. That the recapturing of the Temple was one bright spot in a war that went on for years.

The practice of lighting the menorah — our own small menorahs, little copies of the great big Temple menorah, the reminders of the Jewish life that once was — carried through the generations. We kindled those little lights and put them in our windows. We did it to show that Jewish life lives, even in the hardest times. We’ve done it in times when it has been safe, and times when it has not.

We’ve made sure that lighting candles in the dark has been a part of our tradition in every generation.

I don’t mind if you forget the names Antiochus or Judah. It won’t bother me if you forget the finer points of the story. What I need you to remember is that we make light and tell stories when we’re long on night and short on hope. That, more than anything, is who our people are.

Dane Kuttler is the Special Sections Content Coordinator for the Daily Hampshire Gazette.


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