The New York Times’s coverage of Jewish topics has long been fodder for those who study both media bias and the complicated relationship between the newspaper and the members of the tribe that are among its most loyal readers.
An article published the week before Chanukah about the health risks associated with fried potatoes set off a debate as to whether the feature was a not-so-subtle dig at a holiday tradition. Whether you think the piece (which never actually mentioned Chanukah or latkes) was proof of anti-Semitism or just an unfortunate coincidence, the discussion was indicative of the suspicions that many Jews hold about the Times.
But there was little doubt that a Times op-ed published in its Sunday edition — the day the holiday began — would set alight the debate about its attitude to Jewish sensitivities. In the piece, novelist Michael David Lucas made a couple of observations while attempting to pour cold water on Chanukah celebrations, while also promoting a misunderstanding of Jewish history and the struggle to preserve Jewish identity.
Lucas, who identifies as a “assimilated Jew,” was absolutely right about two things.
One is that for many Jews, Chanukah’s sole significance is as a counterweight to the dominance of Christmas in American popular culture. The other is that many of the otherwise non-observant Jews who embrace it — either on its own or as part of a “Chrismukkah” conflation of the winter season holidays — know little or nothing about the history of the festival.
But he’s wrong to assert, even obliquely, that it is hypocritical for non-Orthodox or predominantly secular Jews to join in the Chanukah fun.
Lucas is right that Chanukah is more important to American Jews than other, more important religious observances. A survey published by the Jewish People and Policy Institute last week claimed that as many as 60 percent of American Jews light candles on Chanukah, which is more than the 53 percent who fast on Yom Kippur or the 23 percent who light Shabbat candles, according to the 2013 Pew Survey on Jewish Americans. It’s also greater than the 32 percent of those identifying as Jews who have a Christmas tree.
He is also correct to point out that the main significance of Chanukah to many Jews is as a Jewish answer to Santa Claus. That doesn’t just mean providing Jews with an excuse to take part in the national obsession with December spending. It also gives them a holiday for which they can demand equal time at public school assemblies and municipal ceremonies. For others, it is, merely as Lucas says of himself, an answer to the pleas of their children for Christmas.
The problem is that the two holidays just don’t compare. Chanukah is fun, but it can’t compete. Even more to the point, as Lucas observes, Chanukah is not a blue-tinseled version of the “good will to all men” of Christmas.
Chanukah is, instead, the story of a conflict in which religious Jews waged war against Seleucid Greeks and their Jewish collaborators. Lucas’s understanding of the history is limited (in the original published version of his piece, he claimed the Maccabees were fighting the Romans), but he’s right that the war waged by Judah Maccabee was as much a civil war against those who had embraced Hellenism as a struggle for national independence.
Lucas concludes that if he were around in 165 BCE, he would have identified more with the city-dwellers embracing Hellenistic practices, like eating pork, than the efforts of “rural religious zealots.” He sees the Maccabee victory as one of “fundamentalism over cosmopolitanism.”
Lucas seems to see the victorious Jews as the moral equivalent of red state evangelical Trump supporters, and their opponents as people like him, who have mixed feelings about circumcision, don’t keep kosher and support Bernie Sanders.
But the point of the festival isn’t one of warfare against the less observant. The Maccabees weren’t so much religious fundamentalists as people who were opposed to having their faith eradicated. In that sense, Lucas’s mischaracterization of their struggle in terms of contemporary American politics is ironic, since what the Jews fighting the Greeks wanted was to be left alone to worship in freedom.
Chanukah is an apt holiday for assimilated Jews (those Pew labeled “Jews of no religion”) because it remembers a profoundly liberal struggle for the right to preserve their culture against the majoritarian impulse.
Lucas may think that the Hellenizers were defending diversity, but they were too narrow-minded to tolerate those who think or worship differently.
Chanukah is about the struggle of Jews, both then and now, to refuse to bow down to the idols of popular culture. The miracle is not merely the one about the oil lasting eight days, but the ability of a small ethno-religious tribe to preserve the flame of Jewish civilization and resist the forces that sought to eradicate them. Hellenism threatened to wipe out a moral vision of the world rooted in the Torah, as well as the autonomy of a small people.
Had the Hellenizers, for whom Lucas says he will say a prayer, prevailed, it would not have been a triumph for individual freedom, but one in which the right to faith or of a small group to defend their own culture and identify would have been extinguished.
If you can’t sympathize with that cause, then don’t blame Judaism, Chanukah or a foolish desire, as Lucas puts it, to “beat Santa.”
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS.