ENCINO, Calif., Dec. 6 (JTA) — Around 165 BCE, a group of Jewish warriors, led by Judah Maccabee, defeated the Greek and Syrian armies. The Jews reclaimed the desecrated Temple in Jerusalem, setting the stage for the celebration of Chanukah. Since that time, over 2,000 years ago, Jews around the world have endlessly and unsuccessfully debated whether the holiday is spelled Chanukah, Hannukah or Hanukkah. But whatever the spelling, the word clearly means dedication, referring to the reconsecration of the Temple. Dedication also refers to the perseverance and patience we parents need to stand in line at Toys R Us for this year’s hottest plaything, the Furby. This is an interactive electronic pet that can do everything my four sons can do — speak in gibberish, wiggle its ears and burp on command. Of course, real dedication — and more in keeping with Chanukah’s true message of freedom from retailers and other oppressors — entails waiting a year. At that point, the flash-in-the-latke-pan Furby will be stacked mile-high on the remainder shelf, along with oodles of Sing and Snore Ernies, Tickle Me Elmos and never-to-be-adopted Cabbage Patch Dolls. With all the hoopla, it’s hard to believe that Chanukah is a minor festival. In fact, it’s the only Jewish holiday without any historical basis in the Bible and with only a few mentions in the Talmud. For instance, the Talmud says, “It is incumbent to place the Chanukah lamp by the door of one’s house on the outside.” It also says that if a camel loaded down with straw passes through a street and knocks over your Chanukah lamp and starts a fire, the camel driver is liable. It’s undoubtedly because of laws like these that we have so many Jewish lawyers. The supposed history of Chanukah began in the fourth century BCE, when Alexander the Great conquered the Middle East. After his death, the empire was divided, and in the second century BCE, Jerusalem came under the autocratic rule of Antiochus, whose mission in life was to tyrannize and Hellenize the Jews. Jews were forbidden to eat kosher foods and celebrate the Jewish holidays. Many Jews willingly abandoned Judaism. Assimilation has always been a Jewish problem. On the other hand, many Jews didn’t want to become Greeks. What was the point, they thought, of learning to throw a discus, of running a 26-mile marathon in the Jerusalem hills and of worshipping a whole panoply of gods who philandered and goddesses who gossiped. One Jew who preferred to fight than switch was Mattathias, an aged priest who lived outside Jerusalem. He had five sons. Probably Mattathias figured that if he didn’t focus these five sons on a common enemy, they would kill each other. So Mattathias formed a guerilla army to fight Antiochus, and other Jews quickly joined the cause. Before he died, Mattathias passed on the leadership to his son Judah, who became known as Judah Maccabee, or “Hammer.” At that time, the title “Hammer” was frequently given to a national hero who defeated a seemingly invincible enemy. Today, that title is reserved for the few Jewish husbands who can successfully make a home repair. Anyway, these Maccabees were determined to fight the Syrians, even though the Syrians laughed at them. Why? Because they had few weapons, no uniforms and no elephants. Yes, elephants were an important military asset. But maybe all the available elephants were in Gaul waiting to cross the Alps with Hannibal. Or perhaps they had already migrated to Florida and were busy preparing for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus’ new summer season. In any event, without elephants but with superior strategy and bravery, the Maccabees defeated Antiochus’ troops, liberated Jerusalem and reclaimed the defiled Temple. When it came time to light the menorah, the Jews found only a small cruse of oil, which they thought would last for one day. The miracle was that the light lasted for eight days. To commemorate this miracle, we light candles for the eight nights of Chanukah. The candles, which are always too big or too small for the holes, are placed in the chanukiya, or menorah, from right to left. But they are lit from left to right. For parents, this exercise is like patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time. And just try doing this while your kids are screaming, “Can we open the presents?” and “I never get a turn to light the candles.” The good news, however, mandated by the Talmud, is that the Chanukah candles must burn for at least 30 minutes, during which time no work can be done. That means we have to sit and observe the ripped wrapping paper and shredded ribbons strewn about our living room and listen to our children fume about not getting the Furby that night. Besides the chanukiya, here are two other important symbols of Chanukah. One is the latkes. At the time of the Maccabees, pancakes were a staple food; wives used to bake them and carry them out to their husbands on the battlefield. So on Chanukah, when we eat latkes, we’re eating the equivalent of C rations, a kind of Spam. It’s also important to note that this was perhaps the last time Jewish women actually cooked dinner for their husbands. Recently, the Israelis, known for their daring rescue operations into dangerous enemy territory, have also rescued us from the tyranny of these soggy and greasy clumps of potatoes. Indeed, they have added an important food to the Chanukah repertoire: sufganiyot. These are jelly-filled doughnuts that are deep fried and rolled in sugar. The other important symbol of Chanukah is the dreidel — the four-sided top that the Greeks used for gambling games. It is said that when Antiochus forbade the Jews to study Torah, the rabbis and their students went into the forests, taking their books and dreidels with them. When they spied Syrian soldiers approaching, the students hid their books and began playing with their tops. Modern technology has made many improvements on the dreidel. In addition to wood, there are plastic, Lucite and today, even the Curious George menorah. But the most innovative and useful, I’ve discovered, are chocolate dreidels, a sweet-tasting, caloric jolt of caffeine and cholesterol. The holiday of Chanukah is indeed a holiday of miracles — the miracle of a small band of warriors defeating a stronger, more powerful army; the miracle of a tiny cruse of oil lasting for eight whole days, and the miracle that, year after year, we dedicated parents continue to stand in lengthy and stress-laden lines at Toys R Us. Jane Ulman lives in Encino, Calif., with her husband and four sons.
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