Wednesday evening, I was up late when I saw the clock tick over to 12:00am and Thanksgiving begin.
My friends and I, we’ve got a group chat, 40 or 50 of us, and now that it was technically Turkey Day, I posted a message – HAPPY THANKSGIVING – with a note saying how thankful I was for all of them, using all the appropriate emojis.
So I was embarrassed when – just a few seconds later, someone also up late – the first response was quote “I guess” unquote, because the friend who posted this is full-blooded Native American, and not exactly a big fan of the story of the Pilgrims and what their colony meant for his ancestors.
It was all light-hearted – I apologized, he said that wasn’t necessary – but it did make me consider, how can we celebrate the good, positive parts of Thanksgiving – the gratitude, the indebted acknowledgement that we thrive only through the support of others – while detesting the origins of the festival? Make no mistake, what happened to the Native Americans – the “Manifest Destiny” that led to the death of millions – was a genocide, and no human and espeically no Jew should ever ignore this.
So, Thanksgiving is, to use that baggage-heavy code word, “problematic”. And yet, do you know what else is problematic? Hanukkah.
Hanukkah as we know starts early this year – we light the first candle this Sunday.
What is Hanukkah? Everyone here probably knows some type of answer. The menorah, the fight of the Maccabees, the miraculous oil, the spinning dreidel, the eating of fried foods, the time we spend with family. But what furrows my brow is Hanukkah’s historical origin.
Roughly 140 years before the common era, High Priest Matityahu revolted against the Seleucid Empire. He died, but his sons defeated their army and formed an independent Jewish state in the Holy Land. When Judah Maccabee entered Jerusalem as conqueror and retook control of the Second Temple, he rededicated the space for Jewish worship. From this rededication we get the word “Hanukkah,” and the spark of the festival’s origin.
Who exactly was Judah Maccabee conquering? A children’s book would say Antiochus. But while Antiochus was the Seleucid king, history paints his involvement as secondary. The primary strife -- the real struggle of the Maccabees – was against Hellenized Jews. A “Hellenized Jew” was a Jew who acted Greek – an assimilated Jew. They took Greek names like Menelaus and Jason, attended Greek social events, and sometimes even partook in Greek religious festivals, as those festivals were an integral part of the Greek economy. But they were still Jews.
Was the Maccabee struggle religious, Zealot against assimilant? Or was it political, those who worked with their Greek neighbors versus those against them? Or was it social, urban assimilated Jews versus rural traditionalist Maccabees? No matter which, the assimilated, Hellenized, urban Jews were defeated, and we know how this story ends – the Maccabees successful and later becoming the Hasmonean dynasty. For what it’s worth, the Hasmoneans themselves became increasingly Hellenized during the hundred years they ruled the Holy Land before Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus marched his Roman legions through and made everyone learn Latin.
Around this time, the Pharisee movement thrived, beginning the rabbinic tradition we know today. Those early rabbis chose to keep the festival of Hanukkah despite the defeat of the people the holiday celebrated. Instead they drew attention to the miracle of the oil. And two thousand years later, here we are, lighting candles and eating latkes and spinning dreidels and giving gifts.
So, how’s this for irony, that we have a holiday that at its core celebrates the victory of a bunch of religious zealots over their assimilated cousins, being celebrated today by a bunch of assimilated American Jews in a manner where the holiday is, on some levels, a Jewish Christmas.
I don’t think Judas Maccabee, the religious zealot, would be happy to learn this.
My point here is, Hanukkah has a story that us Reform Jews rightfully excise from how we now observe this festival. We snip out the “problematic” zealotry and fratricide and hold onto the spirit of miracles and family and jelly donuts.
Yesterday, we celebrated Thanksgiving at my father’s house. The dinner was delicious and the company warm, and I had a great time. I hope you had a similar experience.
But what we didn’t do was celebrate the origin story – the Mayflower and the Pilgrims and Squanto, or what eventually happened to Squanto’s people. We kept only the good parts. Thanksgiving, the holiday, is transforming before our very eyes.
Here at Temple Emanu-El, we acknowledge that our campus is built on land stolen from the Muwekma tribe of the South Bay’s Ohlone peoples. This acknowledgement is just words – but words are important, and just as we acknowledge the troubling origins of some of our traditions, this is the first step towards healing the wounds of the past.
What does Thanksgiving, or any of our rituals, mean to you? How do you evolve traditions so that they reflect your values?