Would you switch from Coke to Pepsi? What about changing your driving habits to reduce carbon emissions? Would you Occupy Wall Street? Would you change your religion?
Temptation to switch is the real story of the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, which begins this year today at sundown and lasts for eight days. It’s relevant today as a way to think about what we’re willing to give up. How much pop culture can we accept into our lives, and how much of our tradition (be it Indian, Catholic or Jewish) do we want to preserve?
Pressure to conform
Some 2,000 years ago, Greeks dominated the world from Western Europe to India and imposed their cultural philosophy, “Hellenism,” on their subjects. Greek culture, language and philosophy were considered the way of the future. Nation-states who rejected it were left out of commerce and considered “backward” (much the way people today who reject Facebook and reading Patch are considered old-fashioned).
Jews of Jerusalem in 165 B.C.E. had to decide. Was there a way to make compromises, be “modern,” and profit from the Greek’s obvious cultural and commercial success?
Practicing Judaism in secret
They found ways to compromise, or pretend in public, while keeping their traditions safely at home. They might change their name from something like Samuel to the Greek name Alexander. They might attend a roast pork banquet, but not eat the pork. Until the Greeks stepped up the consequences for secret observances. Death.
The time for compromise was over, and the Jews ran for the hills, lead by zealot Judah Maccabee. They fought for their beliefs and defeated a well-equipped regular army. Interestingly, the miraculous rebuilding of the Temple -- not the military victory -- is the reason behind the holiday.
Celebrating Hanukkah today
Hanukkah today is an “at-home” holiday. Jews light candles and say short blessings at home. Each night, for eight nights, one candle is added to the “menorah,” or candle holder, from right to left. A ninth candle is used to light the others. If you’re not Jewish, you might see the lit candles from a window.
It’s a custom to give children money, called gelt, or gifts. Gifts may be large or small, given every night or just some nights, although adults don’t always exchange gifts. There is no special Hanukkah service at synagogues, no communal prayers, no prohibition against work.
There will always be pressure to conform, there will always be causes worth fighting for. Whether you are Jewish or not, take a minute during this holiday of dedication and think about the customs and traditions, the ethnic foods and the beliefs that you’d fight for, rather than switch.
Ellen Schur Brown writes about parenting, families and education.