Some of our most well known and beloved holidays are filled with irony.
Purim, a violent, Machiavelian, Tarantino-esque story of attempted genocide has become transformed into a fun dress-up holiday for little kids.
Passover, the festival which celebrates our people’s liberation, has become the most back-breaking, labor-intensive period of the year.
And now Chanukah. The holiday which marks the Jewish people’s fight against assimilation is itself an amalgam of disparate customs and traditions of various host countries that have been pasted together over the past centuries. Chanukah might not even exist if it weren’t for assimilation.
What could be more iconic than the dreidl? Chanukah lore would have us believe that after the Greeks outlawed the study of Torah, some intrepid Jews hid out in the woods determined to study Torah. When the Greek enforcers came near, the Jews would whip out their dreidls and start playing. Apparently, the mighty Greek army was easily fooled into thinking that large numbers of their citizens were sitting in distant fields so that they could spin tops together. “Ok folks, you carry on with that fun game. Let us know if you see any Jews out here.”
In fact, the dreidl, along with its four letters on each side, is based on an identical game in Germany from the 1500s which used a 4-sided top called a trundl. Just like our Chanukah version, each letter instructed the player to perform a certain action.
Maybe all that spinning is making you hungry. Time for some potato latkes. It’s traditional to eat foods prepared in oil, as a nod to the Chanukah miracle story, and to help pay for your cardiologist’s condo in Boca. But why potatoes? This custom originates from a time when so many Jews lived in Eastern Europe–they used what was cheap and plentiful. That’s one reason why we not only eat potato latkes on Chanukah, but enjoy potato kugel and tzimmes throughout the year. It doesn’t explain gefilte fish though.
Finally, the ubiquitous and sometimes controversial tradition of giving gifts on Chanukah, often seen as the most blatant act of assimilation, and a direct copying of our Christian neighbors’ celebration of Christmas. Not so fast there. Because Chanukah is at its heart a holiday celebrating Jewish nationalism, it became traditional very early on to exchange coins–a powerful symbol of national identity. Enter the custom of Chanukah gelt. It turns out that giving money as a gift on Chanukah predates all the other things we do, and is probably the one authentic tradition that is not borrowed from another culture.
So when you get that Target gift card, you’re actually continuing an almost 2000-year old custom.
However you spell it, Happy Chanukah to all!