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The Episcopal Church of St. John Baptist    200 Main St., Thomaston, Maine  04861    (207) 354-8734       Sunday Services are at 8 am and 10 am

Office Hours:  Tuesday through Friday 8:30 am - 12 noon 

Chanukah 5779,  Advent 2018 and the December Dilemma


When I was a kid growing up in New York City I went to a dentist on West 23rd Street. His name was M. Joel Freedman and he was a pioneer in making dentistry more tolerable to children by including movies (mostly cartoons) shown on a large screen while the child’s teeth were cleaned or braces were adjusted. He was a devout Jew and a pillar of his synagogue. But he was also an ecumenicist.  Every December nearly every inch of his establishment was decorated with lights, tinsel, and banners that proclaimed “Happy Chanukah!” and “Merry Christmas.” In the waiting room adult patients were offered hard liquor of every imaginable kind. I do not remember what we young patients were offered but I’m quite sure it wasn’t candy. What fascinated me about Dr. Freedman was his equal billing of Chanukah and Christmas. I was too young to ask questions about the difference but I was quite sure there was more to it than lights and greetings. I imagined that Chanukah was a kind of Jewish Christmas. I was wrong.

This year I was reminded of my interest in Chanukah when I received a letter from a Jewish friend in Colorado who takes the time each year to write a Chanukah letter to her family and friends – both Jewish and Gentile. After Jean’s letter arrived I knew I wanted to write this column about Chanukah. I am grateful to her for her scholarship in the history of Chanukah and for reawakening my interest in it from my early years. The following is a mash-up of my own research, Jean’s letter, and the reminiscences of my friend Jenny (a Bowdoin alumna who remains a dear friend). Jenny also grew up in New York and has told me a lot about what Chanukah was like for her and her family.

Chanukah is not a major Jewish holiday. Contrary to the misperception of many, it is also not the Jewish form of Christmas.  The major Jewish holidays that span the year include: Shabbat, celebrated weekly; Rosh Hashanah; Yom Kippur; Sukkot/Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah; Tu B’Shevat; Purim; Passover; Shavuot; Lag B’Omer and Tisha B’av. Chanukah is not one of them.  Existing as a minor Jewish holiday and meaning “dedication,” it is not found in the Torah. It is not a biblical holiday. It engages such issues as religious oppression, religious freedom, identity, and the vicissitudes of assimilation of the Jewish people into secular societies.  It is the story of the Maccabees who fought a three-year guerilla war against the mighty armies of the Syrian/Greeks to rout them out of the land of Israel and to rescue the Temple in Jerusalem, restoring it from having been defiled by worship of the pagan god, Zeus, and a place where pigs wandered, or were sacrificed on the desecrated altar.

In 168 BC the Syrian Greeks (the Seleucid Empire) under Antiochus IV sought to impose their Hellenic culture – which many Jews found attractive – hence the threat of assimilation and loss of identity. By 167 BC Antiochus intensified his campaign by defiling the Temple in Jerusalem and banning Jewish practice – outlawing observance of Shabbat and other festivals and customs.  Altars and idols were set up for worship of Greek gods and Jews were given two options: conversion or death.

Enter the Maccabees, a priestly family with their refusal to bow to idolatry, their determination to preserve Judaism and their establishment of a resistance movement that eventually routed the Seleucids and restored the Temple. (Maccabee is derived from the Hebrew word for hammer).  Chanukah is the eight-day celebration that commemorates this victory over enormous odds. In 2018 Chanukah is observed from the evening of Sunday 2 December to the evening of Monday 10 December. The reason the date moves from year to year is that Chanukah falls on the 25th day of Kislev according to the Hebrew calendar. This date can occur any time from late November to late December in our Gregorian calendar.

The festival is observed by lighting candles of a candelabrum with nine branches called a Chanukah menorah or hanukkiah. One branch is typically above or below the others and its candle is used to light the other eight candles.  This unique candle is called the shamash, meaning “attendant.” Each night, one additional candle is lit by the shamash until all eight candles are lit together on the final night of the holiday.  The custom (not followed in recent times) is for the menorah to be displayed in a window to remind people that Jews are still around in spite of the historical odds against their existence.

The name Chanukah (also spelled Hanukkah) derives from the Hebrew verb meaning “to dedicate.”  The name can also be broken down into a phrase in Hebrew that means “…they rested on the twenty-fifth,” referring to the fact that the fighting ended on the 25th of Kislev.

The story of Chanukah is preserved in the books of First and Second Maccabees, which describe in detail the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem and the lighting of the menorah.  However, these books are not part of the Hebrew Bible. They came from the Alexandrian canon that is also called the Septuagint in Christian tradition. Both books are included in the Old Testament used by the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. They are not included in the Old Testament in Protestant Bibles since most Protestant denominations consider these two books apocryphal. So we have the odd circumstance of Chanukah being considered Biblical by the Catholic and Orthodox Churches but not by the Jews or the Protestants.

Today the holiday serves to remind the Jewish people to stand firmly against the threats to their identity and culture and to maintain their values “…l’dor v’dor…” (from generation to generation). Since Chanukah is placed close to the celebration of Christmas on the secular calendar, Jewish parents often struggle to maintain a strong Jewish identity for their children against the glitz of Christmas decorations in the stores and along the streets.  This is sometimes referred to as “the December dilemma.”  But struggle they do, buttressed by a strong reminder from Chanukah of the fine line they tread between the attraction of a secular culture and too much assimilation into it.

Jenny remembers vividly the eighth night of Chanukah when her Hungarian grandmother would burst into song. She sang “Maoz Tzur” in Hebrew – sometimes called “Rock of Ages” but not to be confused with the Victorian hymn of the same title. The song Jenny’s grandmother sang is actually in our hymnal. It’s #393: “Praise our great and gracious Lord.” The original Hebrew song was probably written sometime in the thirteenth century.  It was originally only sung in the home at Chanukah but has been sung in some synagogues since the nineteenth century or earlier. The first letters of the first five stanzas form an acrostic of the composer’s name, Mordechai. The hymn retells Jewish history in poetic form and celebrates deliverance from four ancient enemies: Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar, Haman and Antiochus.  Like much medieval Jewish liturgical poetry, it is full of allusions to Biblical literature.

The tune is identical to the one we sing in Hymn #393. Musicologists think that the melody is an adaptation of an old German folk song, “So weiss ich eins, dass mich erfreut, das Plümlein auff preiter Heyde.” [I know someone who pleases me – the boy in the meadow.] This tune was widely spread among German Jews as early as 1450. By an odd coincidence, the melody was also the first used by Martin Luther for one of his German chorales - “Nun freut euch, lieben Christen g’mein.” [Now rejoice, dear Christians, all together.]

Here is an English translation of the Hebrew first stanza: Rock of Ages, let our song / Praise Thy saving power; / Thou, amidst the raging foes, / Wast our sheltering tower. / Furiously they assailed us, / But Thine arm availed us, / And Thy Word broke their sword, / When our own strength failed us.

Chanukah has its traditions and stories. Children enjoy playing with dreidels. These are four-sided spinning tops. Each side bears a letter of the Hebrew alphabet: Nun, Gimel, Hei, and Shin, which together form the acronym for Nes Gadol Hayah Sham – “a great miracle happened there.” In Israel the dreidels are different. The fourth side is inscribed with the letter Pei instead, rendering the acronym Nes Gadol Hayah Poh – “a great miracle happened here.”

There is also the story of the miracle of the oil lasting eight days. This story entered into the celebration of Chanukah centuries later. As the story goes, the lighting of the menorah was an important component of the daily service in the Temple. When the Maccabees liberated the temple they found only a small cruse of pure and undefiled oil for fueling the menorah. There was not enough to last for eight days. Miraculously, the oil burned for eight days and nights. My friend Jenny thinks that this miracle story was added for its attraction to children since they would be less interested in a celebration of dedication to one’s faith.

There are interesting parallels between Chanukah and Advent. Chanukah features the menorah with more candles lit each night as it progresses. Advent has the Advent wreath where more candles are lit as each of the four weeks goes by. Chanukah has the apocryphal story of the oil lasting eight days and nights. During Advent we hear the story of the wise and foolish maidens. The wise ones have enough oil to last them until the bridegroom comes. The foolish ones don’t.  Chanukah encourages the Jew to think about dedication to the faith and not get assimilated into a “pagan” culture.  How often have we listened to Peter’s sermons during Advent when he has reminded us that Advent isn’t Christmas but a sacred time of waiting and dedication to our faith rather than a six- or eight-week shopping frenzy?  (Reny’s Department Stores had Christmas decorations up this year before Halloween)! Unintentionally, our Jewish brethren have reminded Christians to define Advent as a framework intended to keep us focused on our faith rather than getting sucked into the commercialization of this time of year as merchandisers try to make up for sluggish sales by bamboozling us into spending money on things we don’t need.

Judaism has a much to offer us Gentiles. Not just at this time of year but all year long. It is my personal New Year’s resolution to pay closer attention to the gifts of Judaism and to be a mini-Maccabee by battling anti-Semitism. intolerance and hatred wherever I notice it.

Starting in January some of us are dedicating ourselves to performing Ernest Bloch’s monumental Sacred Service / Avodath Hakodesh with orchestra and baritone soloist, Cantor Scott Sokol on Memorial Day 2019. It will be in memory of those who lost their lives at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh a few months ago. It’s a 45-minute work that sets to glorious music the Saturday morning Jewish worship service. If you’d like to sing in it, please talk to me. If not, perhaps you will plan to come hear it at 5 p.m. on Monday 27 May at the Camden Opera House.

Happy Hanukah! Blessed Advent! Praise our great and gracious Lord!