Gather round, children, and I will tell you the story of Chanukkah (which I brazenly lifted from the internet).
Long ago in the land of Judea there was a Syrian king, Antiochus. The king ordered the Jewish people to reject their God, their religion, their customs and their beliefs and to worship the Greek gods. There were some who did as they were told, but many refused. One who refused was Judah Maccabee.
Judah and his four brothers formed an army and chose as their name the word "Maccabee", which means hammer. After three years of fighting, the Maccabees were finally successful in driving the Syrians out of Israel and reclaimed the Temple in Jerusalem. The Maccabees wanted to clean the building and to remove the hated Greek symbols and statues. On the 25th day of the month of Kislev, the job was finished and the temple was rededicated.
When Judah and his followers finished cleaning the temple, they wanted to light the eternal light, known as the N'er Tamid, which is present in every Jewish house of worship. Once lit, the oil lamp should never be extinguished.
Only a tiny jug of oil was found with only enough for a single day. The oil lamp was filled and lit. Then a miracle occurred as the tiny amount of oil stayed lit not for one day, but for eight days.
Gather round, adults, and I will tell you what really happened (as best we know)...
In 334 B.C.E., Alexander the Great conquered Judea along with rest of the Middle East. His reign was notable for religious tolerance, though he imported Hellenistic practices to the lands he conquered and offered tax breaks to grecophones. After Alexander died without an obvious successor, his generals squabbled over the empire and ultimately broke it into three parts. One of the generals, Seleucus, won control of the westernmost part, which stretched from Turkey to India and became known as the Seleucid Empire.
Antiochus IV Epiphanes was the eighth ruler of the empire. He initially continued Alexander's practices of religious tolerance and Hellenist influence, which many Judeans embraced enthusiastically. From the first Book of Maccabees:
At that time there were some evil-doers in Israel who tried to win popularity for a policy of integration with the surrounding nations. It was because the Jews had kept themselves aloof for so long, they claimed, that so many hardships had befallen them. They acquired a following and applied to Antiochus, who authorized them to introduce the Greek way of life. They built a Greek gymnasium in Jerusalem and even had themselves uncircumcised.
The conflict between grecophiles and traditionalists was suffused with political intrigue. When the High Priest died in 175 B.C.E, his pro-Greek son Jason bribed Antiochus to be made High Priest in place of his anti-Greek brother, Onias. Then Menelaus, another grecophile who wasn't even a member of the High-priestly family, bribed Antiochus to replace Jason. When Antiochus left to invade Egypt, Jason took advantage of the opportunity to forcibly win back his position. Upon returning from the semi-successful Egyptian campaign, Antiochus interpreted Jason's move as an insurrection. That's when he outlawed Jewish religious practices and slaughtered those who resisted.
According to the Book of Maccabees, Mattathias, the leader of a conservative priestly clan known as the Hasmoneans, refused to make an offering to Greek gods as commanded by a Greek official. When another Judean attempted to make an offering on his behalf, Mattathias killed him, along with the Greek official, and fled with his five sons to the mountains. His son, Judah, adopted the nom de guerre of Judah Maccabee and launched a holy war against Antiochus, employing guerrilla tactics to defeat the larger Greek-Syrian army. After winning Judean independence, the Hasmonians established a religious dynasty which survived until the Romans interceded and placed Herod on the throne.
As for the miracle of the oil, the first Book of the Maccabees doesn't even mention it.
Some Chanukkah trivia for you:
- Chanukkah is often spelled with a C because we lack a letter for the Hebrew sound. Imagine that you've just eaten a moldy peach and exclaim, "Yechhhh!" That's the sound. It's part of what makes Hebrew such a beautiful language.
- There are apparently 16 ways to spell Chanukkah as proven by the internet.
- The menorah holds 9 candles. The top candle is called the shamush, which means "servant." You're supposed to place the candles into the menorah from right to left, then light the shamush with a match and use the shamush to light the other candles from left to right.
- The traditional Chanukkah food is the latke, a delicious, fat-sizzled potato pancake usually eaten with applesauce.
- Jewish parents traditionally tell the story of Chanukkah to their children each year. My grandfather was an artist and illustrated a booklet that my parents put together. He drew the "Greek" idol a large man horns, which led me to have some misconceptions.
- While there is a tradition of giving money (gelt in Yiddish) on Chanukkah, the gift-giving has been appropriated from the goyim. The gelt tradition survives in the form of coin-shaped chocolates.
- Dreydel is gambling game. You ante your gelt into the pot and then spin to see who wins it. The dreydel has four sides and your winning is determined by which side lands face-up. The gimmel side gets you the whole pot, hei gets you half, nun gets you nothing, and shin requires you match the pot. I once played strip-dreydel with a shiksa girlfriend. Best dreydel match ever.
- Contrary to popular belief, we do not sacrifice Christian babies during Chanukkah. We do that on Passover.