Hanukkah, Celebration of Light and Laughter
By Daniel Silverman '11, Contributing Writer
I don’t know about you, but for me, what’s really defined this year’s Hanukkah is the song “Candlelight” performed by the Yeshiva University Maccabeats in the a cappella imitation of Taio Cruz’s “Dynamite”. In the video, a whole bunch of peppy, yarmulke-wearing young men bop around, play dreidel, light a menorah, eat latkes and put on a mock-battle between Jews and Greeks. If the essence of Hanukkah is anywhere, I think it might be here.

Perhaps I should justify that claim. Most Jewish holidays (Sukkot, Simchat Torah, Shavuot, Purim, etc. — not to mention weekly Shabbat!) suffer from spotty observance. A lot of us forget about them, don’t know exactly what they’re about or don’t care. Those that everyone knows and observes — Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Passover—are either very solemn or involve some sort of self-deprivation. If you’re an ordinary young Jew who isn’t too keen on fasting or a week without bread, and thinks of the New Year as Jan. 1 rather than sometime in September, Judaism can be a bit of a downer.

But, enter Hanukkah! Eight days of chocolate coins, spinning tops, latkes and jelly doughnuts, with the most serious part being to light a menorah and remember an awesome story. (Really, one of the most dashing and heroic stories we as a religion have.) It’s a holiday everyone can feel good about celebrating. Even those Talmud- and Jewish law-obsessed Yeshiva University students make light of it! Any time wearers of yarmulkes and atheists have the same enthusiasm about a holiday is, in my opinion, a special moment for the Jewish community.

At Amherst Hillel, Hanukkah is one of our most beloved holidays. On Friday night, we welcomed well-nigh 100 people (non-Jews and Jews alike!) to the Cadigan Center for Religious Life, where abundant latkes, noodle kugel and other dishes were served up by our valiant cooks. Delicious food combined with ubiquitous conversations, games of dreidel and Hanukkah-themed music for a joyous evening. In addition to this “Latkepalooza”, we’ve been lighting a menorah every evening at 6:00 in the Valentine common room. (Tonight’s the last night, and anyone is welcome to join us!)

Well over 2000 years ago, a clan of Jewish radicals made history by taking up arms against the Syrian-Greek authorities in place in Israel. After a hard-fought war, these Hasmoneans or Maccabees triumphed, and insurgents became Jewish rulers in a land more often ruled by outside powers. Rabbis of later, less glorious centuries did not forget the episode. Indeed, they spun a whole new story out of it: that of the oil in the Temple in Jerusalem. When the Maccabees arrived victorious at this most holy of Jewish sites, they found it in ruins. They hoped, as a symbolic gesture of restoration, to light the menorah, a seven-branched candelabrum that represented the constant presence of God in the Temple. But, as legend has it, there was only enough oil intact to last for one day. Miraculously, that small amount kept the flames burning for eight days. Faith had triumphed both militarily and symbolically, and it was the latter victory that the rabbinic tradition encouraged persecuted Jews to remember.

So much for the backstory. Today, Hanukkah probably thrives more because of its proximity to other “winter holidays” than because of its cheering message to downtrodden Jews. Still, the popularity of an anthem like the Maccabeats’ “Candlelight” suggests to me that there is more to Hanukkah than a Jewish Christmas. For Jews from all places, with all sorts of beliefs, there’s something totally lovable and even self-affirming about these bright-faced Orthodox songsters. Given how conscious we Jews usually are about our divisions, what each of us firmly stands for, such a whiff of unity is no trifling matter. And it may be only on Hanukkah — not the dour High Holidays or ritual-bound Passover — when this carefree multi-hued fraternity is possible. Now, in these eight days, all of us (Jews, non-Jews and sort-of-Jews) can take our cue from the Maccabeats and “fling our latkes in the air sometimes, saying ay-o, spin the dreidel!”

Issue 11, Submitted 2010-12-08 21:01:46