Saturday, December 23, 2006

The Chanukization of Judaism

In the space between Chanukah and Christmas, I had one of those realizations that on the one hand is trivial, but on the other makes you really think. We were saying the blessings before lighting the candles at my brother’s house on the third night and a discontinuity arose that I had known about since I was a kid. When we all said the words together, my father pronounced those that involve the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet in the Ashkenazi (European Jews) fashion, with an “s” sound. My brother and I use the Sephardic (Middle Eastern Jews) pronunciation, a “t” sound as we were taught in Hebrew school. We, and everyone at the school -- including the teachers, were of European origin; so why were we taught the Sephardic pronunciation? It was only this year that I figured it out.

Chanukah is a minor holiday that has been elevated to a major focus of contemporary Jewish life solely in order to provide a counter-point to Christmas. Unlike the other celebrations, the Talmud does not have a discussion of Chanukah. It is the only Jewish holiday dedicated to a military victory and that made the rabbis uneasy about it. Judaism is not a aggressive system of belief, it is not a theology of the conqueror, but a philosophical approach based upon being an outsider, considering how to treat the powerless. It wears its tribal, nomadic roots in the open. Unlike Christianity and Islam, it is a non-evangelical religion. If you weren’t born into the tribe, they don’t want you. If you demand to come in loud enough, they’ll let you, but don’t expect a free toaster for signing up. Chanukah celebrates not just the miracle of the oil, but control over land. The spirit is a commemoration of “this is ours, get the hell out,” and that is not the true tenor of Jewish thought.

But this accident the calendar mirrors a change in Judaism itself. In Hebrew school, they would spend a third of the time teaching the Hebrew language, a third of the time teaching Jewish history where you learned how every major civilization that came down the pike beat the living crap out of your ancestors, and the final third teaching theology where you learned that Jews are “G-d’s Chosen People” (tm). After a while you began to wish that He would choose someone else for a while to give those poor Jews a break.

Then came the horror of World War II. Suddenly technology had advanced to a point where true annihilation, something threatened from ancient times forward, actually became possible. Out of the realization of the very real chance that their deepest collective fear could be realized came the establishment of Israel.

The original spirit of Israel was one of the Kumbaya Yiddles, idealistic leftists seeking a social laboratory to create a caring communal corner of Creation. But, of course, the actual history ended up elevating the modern-day Maccabees. Judaism after WWII became Zionism and Zionism once it was on the ground required a much more aggressive stance. The generals were given the lion’s share of the social capital. All of a sudden, the spirit of the religion as practiced became one that more resembles Chanukah than Yom Kippur.

And that is precisely why we were taught to speak Hebrew with a Middle Eastern accent. We were being prepared to go to Israel. It was the first aggressive step in our indoctrination. We were being made into Chanukah Jews.

I don’t know why it took me a quarter of a century to connect the dots. But next year, if I light the candles, I will pronounce it with an “s” and make sure that my children hear it that way.