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Hanukkah ain’t about latkes & dreidels

BERLIN GERMANY - DECEMBER 07:  Rabbi YehudTeichtal BerlOrthodox Jewish Chabad community chants blessing after raising menorah front Brandenburg Gate

BERLIN, GERMANY - DECEMBER 07: Rabbi Yehuda Teichtal of the Berlin Orthodox Jewish Chabad community chants a blessing after raising a menorah in front of the Brandenburg Gate ahead of Hanukkah on December 7, 2012 in Berlin, Germany. Berlin is home to a growing Jewish population, many of whom are immigrants from the former Soviet Union, after the local Jewish community was devastated by the Holocaust before and during World War II. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

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Updated: January 11, 2013 6:19AM



Well, it’s Hanukkah, again. A swell holiday, I suppose, if you’re Jewish, and you’re 10. Presents, potato pancakes and . . . well, that’s about it. Being an adult, with near-adult children, Hanukkah loses much of its oomph. Dreadful monotonic music, tedious traditions — I mean, have you ever actually played dreidel? I have; it’s about as fun as flipping a coin.

Then there’s the holiday’s message. If Passover is uplift — the Exodus from Egypt (“we were slaves, now we’re free”) — and Yom Kippur is reflection and repentance, Hanukkah is about kicking the other guy’s ass. Which is not necessarily a bad value — it beats losing — but not something you want to spend eight days glorying over in public, either.

To me, Hanukkah is practically a Christian holiday. It’s Christmas by proxy — Jews who can’t bear the thought of missing out on December fun but can’t quite bring themselves to sing “O Holy Night” and decorate a tree, have conflated this minor blip on the Hebrew calendar into enormous proportions, like some spider grown huge because of its proximity to a nuclear waste dump in a 1950s horror movie.

Even people who sincerely try to make sense of Hanukkah can blow it. The most emailed story on the New York Times website Sunday was a commentary, “The True Meaning of Hanukkah” by Hilary Leila Krieger, Washington bureau chief of the Jerusalem Post. She begins by recounting the dreary obligation of standing up in elementary school to explain the whole thing to your Christian classmates — the dreaded “This is a dreidel, this is a menorah” speech.

At times, though, she seems to be drifting somewhere significant.

“The original miracle of Hanukkah was that a committed band of people led a successful uprising against a much larger force . . .” she writes.

Gosh, where is she going here? But no, the sentence ends, “paving the way for Jewish independence.”

For a moment, I thought she was going to point out the obvious Hanukkah implications for the Palestinians, after all her talk about saving Jerusalem from “the desecration of foreign invaders.” That’s how they view it.

Most people see the world like the end of a “Lord of the Rings” movie. There’s the good guys — us — and the bad guys, them. The army of buff heroes and hot babes riding tigers — again, us — and the army of slime-dripping monsters and horrendous man/boars with fangs curling behind their ears (hint: them). We fall upon each other with a roar, then the good guys — us — win, and the credits roll.

I get that, and I’m firmly on the Israel side, by upbringing and inclination. But that doesn’t mean I think we live in a movie, or that my part is to grab a club, raise it over my head and run howling down the hillside at the Palestinians. That doesn’t strike me as the Jewish way. We’re supposed to be a little better than that. Tikkun olam — repair the world.

The Palestinians seem convinced they’ll capture “every inch” of Israel. And Israel, of late, seems to believe it’ll compress millions of Palestinians into a smaller and smaller space until, poof, they magically disappear.

Neither plan seems to be working very well. The Palestinians might be fools, brushing aside chance after chance for peace. But then the Israelis are waiting on fools, letting the years roll on, corroding their position in the world, when they should just abandon the place. Give Gaza to Egypt, the West Bank to Jordan — sure, neither wants them or would take them, but it would be fun to see Israel try. Israel should have supported the Palestinian quest for nationhood in the U.N., should have said, “Heck, you ARE a nation, congratulations.” Israel is far better at defeating its combative nation neighbors than it is at managing conquered territories.

“If we’re going to magnify Hanukkah, we should do so because it offers the deeper meaning and opportunity for introspection,” Krieger concludes, having blown a chance to do just that. Though maybe she was being subtle, with her references to “Maccabean leaders’ religious zealotry, forced conversions and deadly attacks on their neighbors.”

But I doubt it. For many American Jews, “supporting” Israel means applauding as if we were circus seals, no matter what it does. That isn’t how actual Israelis respond. Like everyone else, Jews can stray from their better natures, can be influenced by false values. You can’t have Hassidic Jews with giant menorahs stuck atop their cars, blaring Hanukkah carols and racing down Devon Avenue, as if it were Mexican Independence Day, without suspecting that we have allowed ourselves to be influenced by others. The brutality of the region has leached into Israel and is reflected in the ongoing disaster of the occupation. Israel ought to fix it, now. That, to me, is the true meaning of Hanukkah.



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