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Why the heroes of the Hanukkah story wouldn't understand what the Jewish holiday has become

And how a minor holiday about a religious uprising became the symbol of Jewish America.

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An Israeli electric  company arranges cranes in the shape of a Hanukkah menorah.
An Israeli electric company arranges cranes in the shape of a Hanukkah menorah.
Jack Guez/AFP

Hanukkah, which started on the evening of December 2nd, was probably the first Jewish holiday you heard of, whether you're Jewish or not.

Hanukkah is such a big deal in America — there's a menorah lighting on the National Mall, for Pete's sake! — that you'd be forgiven for assuming it has always been the most wonderful time of the Jewish year. But you'd be wrong. As a matter of fact, the Maccabees themselves — the heroes of the Hanukkah story — would probably be downright angry over what the holiday's become.

Here's what Hanukkah is, what it isn't, and what it can be sometimes but doesn't have to be.

There is no right way to spell Hanukah/Hanukkah/Chanukah/Chanukkah/Chanukka

All of these spellings are correct. As well as Hannukkah, Chanuka ... you get the idea.

You'd think people would be able to live and let live on this one. After all, it's not a slight to Team Chanukah to say that spelling it with a Ch- is just as correct as starting with H-. But said team's members argue that Chanukah is correct, because it's the "traditional" spelling, while others assert Hanukkah is the correct "American" spelling. They are both wrong.

The reason for the confusion, of course, is the English alphabet. Hanukkah traditionally appears in Hebrew characters (חנוכה) or in Yiddish (which uses the Hebrew alphabet). So any transliteration to English is just an attempt to represent what the word sounds like in Hebrew. There's no phonetic difference between a k and a kk, or between an -a and an -ah. And that phlegmy, back-of-the-throat hhhhhh sound that starts the word? No one has yet figured out how to transcribe that into English letters. Ch- is sort of an approximation, but starting with the H- is just fine.

This video, on the other hand, is a joke:

Hanukkah is a tiny, minor Jewish holiday

Here is how not-important Hanukkah is, from a religious standpoint, to Judaism. During most religious holidays, observant Jews have to abide by the same rules they do on Shabbat (Saturdays): no work, restricted use of technology, etc. Those rules aren't in play on Hanukkah. The only theological obligation on Hanukkah is lighting the candles on the menorah for each of the holiday's eight nights — the centerpiece of the holiday. Everything else that is associated with Hanukkah has just sprung up as custom over the millennia.

Why did Hanukkah become such a big deal for contemporary Jews? You likely know the answer to this one already: Christmas.

Early American Jews almost certainly didn't celebrate Hanukkah. But in the late 19th and early 20th centuries — as the first wave of American Jews began to settle in the US and aspire to the middle class — they began to make a big deal out of the holiday. Some scholars, like historian Dianne Ashton, argue it was a 19th-century attempt to get young people interested in synagogue (by bribing them with toys). Others think it was a more straightforward 20th-century response to the popularity of Christmas.

From America, this newfound fervor spread to other Jewish diaspora populations. We think of America as being the "New World" for all arriving immigrant groups, but that's slightly different for Jews. Since European Jewish tradition was nearly extinguished during the Holocaust, American Jews have become some of the longest-standing keepers of Jewishness. Would Hanukkah be as popular as it is today in Israel, for example, if it hadn't been a big deal in America first? Who knows.

hanukkah israel

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, celebrating Hanukkah with the Israeli army. (Israeli Ministry of Defense)

Hanukkah presents are for kids — and they're not traditional

Traditionally, at Hanukkah children got money from their parents and older relatives; in Yiddish, this is called Hanukkah gelt. When Hanukkah became an American holiday, parents began to give their children Hanukkah gifts, instead — though gelt has survived in the form of chocolate coins.

The idea of "Hanukkah presents" is another attempt to shoehorn Hanukkah into the Christmas script. Part of that pressure comes from outside Judaism — from a Christian majority that has at times pressured Jews to assimilate to become more "American" and at other times tried to find Jewish analogues for Christian traditions as a way to include Jews in holiday celebrations. But part of it comes from Jews themselves. As historian Ashton says of the early American Hanukkah celebrants: "They didn't see Christmas as something they could do easily because it's Christian, but they did want to do something like that because it was American."

hanukkah history

This is the sort of facial expression that inspired parents to bribe their children with Hanukkah presents. (Hulton Archive/Getty)

There's nothing wrong with giving kids Hanukkah presents, or making a gingerbread "Hanukkah house," or even investing in one of the two Jewish counterparts to the Elf on the Shelf. It's just something that some Jews will choose to do and some won't.

It's less common for adults to give each other gifts at Hanukkah than to give them to kids. But if you really want to do something for a non-Christmas-observing friend, just get her some gelt — in the form of gift cards, of course.

Latkes aren't the traditional Hanukkah food for everybody

Latkes (potato pancakes) are traditional for Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jews. Sephardic (Mediterranean) Jews have traditionally eaten sufganyot — fried jelly donuts. That said, most modern Jews don't let tradition get in the way of delicious fried food — plenty of people eat both.


This will feed about three people. (Susan Watts/New York Daily News Archive/Getty)

How did one branch of Judaism come to celebrate the holiday by frying potatoes and the other by frying donuts? Because the point is the frying, not what's being fried. Oil is central to the Hanukkah mythos — supposedly, it's why the holiday lasts eight nights to begin with. The legend is that while the Jews were at war with the Greeks and the Temple was under siege, there was only enough oil left to light the lamps for one day — but the oil miraculously burned for eight.

All of which brings us to...

Hanukkah was about war before it was about miracles

The oil story is often offered as the reason for the season, if you will. It's certainly gotten more important over the millennia since the war itself (which happened in the second century BCE). But originally, the point of Hanukkah was to celebrate winning the war against the Greeks, not to celebrate the miracle of the oil. This is a common theme among Jewish holidays: The joke goes, "They tried to kill us; we won; let's eat." (See also: Passover, Purim.)

So here's the original story of Hanukkah: During the second century, the Jews were under the imperial control of the Seleucids, who were Greek. The Seleucid emperor Antiochus decided to reverse an earlier policy of religious tolerance and start trying to "Hellenize" — assimilate — Jews. Some Jews were okay with this; after all, the Greeks were cultured, and they were running the place. (Contemporary accounts say that some Jews even uncircumcised themselves so they wouldn't be recognized as Jews at the gym. Seriously.) But many Jews were not — especially after Antiochus's forces started slaughtering pigs in the Temple, desecrating it.


The Maccabee rebels heading into battle. (Gustasve Dore's illustrated Bible/Ann Ronan Pictures/Getty)

The latter category included the family that, in the Hanukkah story, is called the Maccabees: from the Hebrew for "hammer." (Historians call their faction the Hasmoneans.) The Maccabees led the Jews into rebellion against the forces of Antiochus. After a few years, they were able to reconsecrate the Temple; after a couple of decades, they had chased the Seleucids from the Holy Land.

Think a little about this news story from 2014: The Israeli government gave the US ambassador to Israel a Hanukkah menorah that looks like Israel's Iron Dome missile defense system. That would be an incredibly strange gift for a holiday about getting the best Miracles Per Gallon you can out of your oil supply. But for a holiday that's about fighting off an existential threat in the Holy Land and reclaiming it for Jews and Jews alone, you can see why the current Israeli government might want to associate itself with the Maccabees.

The Maccabees were zealots — not warriors for religious tolerance

It's easy to look at the Hanukkah story and see the Maccabees as simply fighting for self-determination — as people who just wanted to live according to their own faith. Any American Jew with parents of a certain age has probably heard "Light One Candle," a Peter, Paul, and Mary song that basically turns the Maccabees into proto-hippies:

It's true that the Maccabees were fighting to practice their faith. But they weren't just fighting on their own behalf — they were fighting to preserve tradition among all Jews, even the Hellenistic ones who were more accepting of assimilation. The Maccabees, in a word, were zealots.

Here's how James Ponet, Yale's Jewish chaplain, describes the Maccabeean Revolt:

Armed Hasmonean (Maccabee) priests and their comrades from the rural town of Modi'in attacked urban Jews, priests and laity alike, who supported Greek reform, like the gymnasium and new rules for governing commerce. The Hasmoneans imposed, at sword's edge, traditional observance. After years of protracted warfare, the priests established a Hasmonean state that never ceased fighting Jews who disagreed with its rule.

This makes it particularly ironic that these days, Hanukkah is perhaps the most assimilated Jewish holiday there is. Would modern-day Maccabees be okay with Hanukkah presents? Probably not. And don't even think about how they'd feel about the Mensch on the Bench.

You will not make your Jewish friends feel more welcome at your caroling party by asking them to sing Hanukkah songs

If you played the "Light One Candle" video above, congratulations! You have officially heard one of the three and a half Hanukkah songs that anybody knows.

Some secular Jews grow up hearing traditional Jewish blessings at home only at Hanukkah, and those have a beautiful melody. But actual Hanukkah music, for whatever reason, is terrible. The "Dreidel Song" accomplishes the impressive feat of being repetitive the first time you hear it. "Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah" isn't bad, but it's kid stuff. And "Light One Candle" is hard to sing and kind of a drag — it's not something that you want to hear between "O Come All Ye Faithful" and "We Wish You a Merry Christmas." (There is one traditional Hanukkah hymn — "Ma'oz Tzur" — that is very hummable. But plenty of Jews don't remember the words in Hebrew, and the English lyrics are terrible, so it generally disintegrates into mumbling after the first line.)

So forget about "Hanukkah songs." Who needs them? Some of America's best Christmas music was written by Jews. Tablet Magazine compiled a list of the 10 best such songs — including everything from "White Christmas" to "Sleigh Ride" to "Santa Baby." So on behalf of American Jewry, dear America: We'll just take those back, thank you very much. I could easily sing one of these for every night of Hanukkah. It would be no more contrary to the spirit of American Hanukkah than anything else.

Correction: This article originally referred to the "three Hanukkah songs anybody knows." The author had forgotten about the existence of "Ma'oz Tzur." Thanks to @squarelyrooted on Twitter for pointing it out; no thanks to @squarelyrooted on Twitter for getting it stuck in her head.