A few years ago, I was at a Shabbaton in Dallas for young Jewish professionals. As an ice breaker, they had everyone go around the room telling their favorite Jewish holiday and why. The overwhelming majority of answers were Chanukah “because of the presents and the lights.” Second place was Purim “because we get to dress up.” I answered Pesach because of the Exodus story, and how I hoped that Hashem would take me out of Galut and return to Israel like he did for Bnei Yisrael.
Chanukah is not simply another Jewish holiday where “They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat.” Yes, the extraordinary Maccabean victory over the Greek-Macedonian Empire should be celebrated. The miracle of finding pure olive oil to light the Temple menorah is also extremely important to remember; as well as all of the other miracles Hashem has performed for us throughout history. Yet there is still something else that sets Chanukah apart from every other Jewish holiday that modern Jews today seem to gloss over.
Today there are a lot of threats facing the Jewish people. Some are older enemies such as white supremacists in Charlottesville marching and chanting “Jews will not replace us!” and Islamic extremists driving through London chanting “F*** their mothers, rape their daughters.” Others are more new to the scene such as the Black Hebrew Israelite movement chanting that they “are the real Jews” (despite their belief in Jesus) and the growing trend of woke fake converts (teacup mikvah, anyone?) using their newfound “Jewishness” to LARP and virtue signal despite showing clear antisemitic beliefs and push anti-Zionist narratives on social media (Note: This is in no way bashing sincere halachic converts who follow the mitzvot in the Torah).
Despite all of this, the number one threat facing Jews today is assimilation. That’s right, we are our own worst enemy. The Pew Research Center found in 2020 that of all Jews who married since 2010, 61% of them married outside our faith. In 2010 they found that 48% of millennial Jews in the US only have one Jewish parent. It doesn’t take much to extrapolate from this that the worryingly increasing rate of intermarriage from our parent’s generation to our own will likely only continue to rise.
It’s assimilation and intermarriage rates like this that resulted in answers like the ones given at that Shabbaton. Chanukah is not the Jewish Christmas, and yet many Jews today celebrate it as if it is. They give gifts to children, which is NOT Jewish tradition. They decorate Christmas trees in blue and white ornaments and call them “Hanukkah Bushes.” They revamp the game “Secret Santa” to “Mystery Maccabee.” Dress up as a blue Santa Claus, now aptly named Hanukkah Harry. Listen to Christmas carols, and then justify this because “they were written by Jews!” Don’t even get me started with the abomination that is the concept of “Chrismukkah.”
People like to call Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy a “modern day Maccabee.” This despite the fact that he isn’t religious, married a non-Jew, has non-Jewish children, and is fighting in a war that has nothing to do with Judaism or religion in general. Comparing him to the ancient Maccabim is completely tone deaf.
We’re not the only ones who can hijack someone else’s holiday. Non-Jewish VP Kamala Harris did this beautifully two years ago when she answered her Jewish husband’s question, “Why do you love Chanukah?” I’ll save you time and tell you that her response is not at all what Chanukah represents.
For Ben Shapiro’s hilarious reaction, click here.
While I did go to a religious Jewish school and was educated in the Chanukah story, its true impact and relevance to today hadn’t fully hit me until I attended that Shabbaton in Dallas years ago. After hearing that Chanukah was peoples’ favorite holiday because of the gifts and the lights, the Rabbi and Rebbetzin hosts then gave an inspiring lesson on the true meaning of Chanukah. They compared Chanukah to our other holidays and said that while our physical lives had been in danger with those holidays, Chanukah was all about the battle for our Jewish souls. Had we fully adopted Greek religion and culture, the Greeks would have welcomed us into their empire like the other tribes and nations they had conquered. Indeed, many Jews at the time became Hellenists and did everything they could to model themselves after the Greeks, even turning on their fellow Jews.
So this Chanukah, instead of giving gifts take on a mitzvah. Keep Shabbat. Eat kosher food. Say the Shema. Put on tzitzit and wear tefillin. Separate challah. Learn Torah. Give tzedaka. Visit the sick. Put up a mezuzah. Or even make Aliyah (yes, it is actually a mitzvah in the Torah). We need to decolonize ourselves and celebrate living our authentic selves as proud Jews. Honor the true meaning of Chanukah by returning to a Torah-centered life. Become a modern-day Maccabee.
נס גדול היה פה