As Hanukkah drew to a close and the new year began, I started wondering: Of all the Jewish holidays, why does Hanukkah attract the most attention from religious and secular Jews alike?
There are two different lines of thought when determining why this festival, more than any other, seems to get buy-in from all Jews. The first is the timing of the festival. In every religion there has always been something to celebrate the winter solstice and so as Christians celebrate Christmas, the Jews have Hanukkah.
With so much of the Western retail economy based around the holiday seasons, Hanukkah gets a natural bounce. In America, alongside Father Christmas one can find Hanukkah Harry, a friendly Jewish fictional Saturday Night Live Character who has entered into the collective imagination.
Eight nights of presents, an easy family ritual, and no need to suspend one’s daily life; it’s easy to see why Hanukkah has caught on in such a big way. Not to mention the permissible calorie fest of donuts and latkes.
Yet the other explanation for its popularity looks at the festival itself and its meaning. It is no coincidence that the emblem of the State of Israel is the menorah with olive branches on either side.
Hanukkah marks the rededication of the temple when the Maccabees revolted and established the Hasmonean period of Jewish self-rule. The parallels to the modern State of Israel are pronounced and unlike so many other Jewish commemorations of tragedy, it marks a small group of Jews really fighting back and winning.
Hanukkah speaks to the modern day Israeli and allows them to connect to the land and their tradition in a way that has meaning in their modern lives, rather than just another religious festival ritual that many feel little affinity to.
Not every part of the story of Hanukkah makes comfortable reading. The Maccabees were zealots fighting against the secularization and assimilation they saw in their midst. Today there are ongoing battles within Israel between zealots who seek to change the society into images of themselves and the slowly awakening silent majority who are now realizing they have to fight for an image of a society they want to live in.
The story of Hanukkah has many messages for us today and can help us examine how we can move from an exilic mindset into one of a nation state. A people in exile have things done to them; they are not masters of their own fate, they cannot dictate their own destiny. A sovereign people have the power to shape their circumstance and not be left to the whims of others. The exiled Jew must constantly be alert to the dangers of assimilation, the self-ruling Jew in the majority need not worry about losing his or her identity but about how to create a society that can truly be light unto the nations.
As Hanukkah 5772 comes to an end and one reflects upon the mood within the Jewish State, one can see the majority waking up and realizing that they have the power to change the situation around them. From #j14 to the Bet Shemesh protests, the Jewish people living in their homeland is not an entity to which things happen, but a people who can affect their own fate.
Both in Haaretz and other newspapers, few are predicating positive things for Israel in 2012. Perhaps the only thing that can combat this wall-to-wall despair is the average Israeli recognizing their sovereignty and moving from a position of passive acceptance, to creative activity.