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Two First-Rate Educators Take On
The Many Meanings of Hanukkah

A DIFFERENT LIGHT, THE HANUKKAH BOOK OF CELEBRATION edited by Noam Zion and Barbara Spector, 2000. 264 pages, $27.95; and A DIFFERENT LIGHT, THE BIG BOOK OF HANUKKAH edited by Noam Zion and Barbara Spector, 2000, 342 pages, $27.95. Both books: $45 Devorah Publishing Co., N.Y. and the Shalom Hartman Institute, Jerusalem, Israel.

Reviewed by Rabbi Jack Riemer

A few years ago Noam Zion published 'A Different Night', which was a wonderful Passover Haggadah, chock full of interesting ideas with which to make the Seder more meaningful. Now, together with Barbara Spector, he has edited two more books whose goal is to make the holiday of Hanukkah more understandable and more enjoyable.

Elephants at WarThe task this time is probably more difficult, because Passover has a clear message and a basic text. Hanukkah has many messages, some of them contradictory, and it does not have anything like the Haggadah that everyone knows and that everyone recites. And yet the editors of this book have done just as creative and just as impressive a job with Hannukah as one of them did with Pesach.

The first thing you need to know in approaching this book is that down through the centuries Hanukkah has had many meanings. Whatever it meant originally is something that scholars can and do argue about. It was probably not so much a war against the external enemy as it was a civil war between the Jews. And if that is what it originally was, that is a scary thing to think about in this age of polarization and divisiveness in which we now live.

But whatever it originally was, Hanukkah took on different shapes and different meanings down through the centuries. The Sages of the Talmud transformed it from a holiday that celebrated a military victory into a holiday in which the focus was on the oil that lasted eight days instead of on the army that won the war. Judah Maccabee doesn't even get a mention in the Al Hanissim prayer, in which all the credit goes for the victory goes to God. And the Sages chose as the haftorah for Hanukkah a chapter of the Bible that contains the words: 'NOT by might and NOT by valor but by God's spirit' do human beings triumph, which is probably a slap at the Maccabees.

Silver dreidelThen in the Middle Ages, Hanukkah was a minor holiday, a day for playing dreidel and eating latkes, and not much else. And as the great Hanukkah song, Moaz Tsur, makes clear to anyone who actually reads the lyrics, it was a time for praying that, just as God restored the Temple once, in the time of the Maccabees, so may He do so soon again by bringing the Messiah whom we wait for and yearn for.

In the nineteenth and twentieth century, in America, Hanukkah was transformed again, this time into a celebration of the rights of religious minorities. Read 'Rock of Ages' which most people think is the translation of Maoz Tsur and you will see that there is almost no resemblance between the Hebrew hymn and the English one that is sung to the same melody. This one talks, not about the restoration of the Temple and the renewal of sacrifices, but about the coming of the day which will see 'all men free, tyrants disappearing'. And in America, because of a coincidence of the calendar, Hanukkah replaced Purim as the season for gift giving.

And then came Zionism and Israel and a new and still different Hanukkah was born. Now the Maccabees were understood as fighters, not so much for religious freedom as for an independent Jewish state, as the role models for the Chalutzim.

Bukharan mother and daughterThe evolution of Chanukah is still not done. For the new agers, Hanukkah is becoming the holiday of the winter solstice, a season for grappling with darkness. And no one can predict what Hanukkah will mean in the years to come.

Zion and Spectre begin this anthology with a wonderful phrase that comes from their teacher, David Hartman. He says that Judaism is 'a community of interpretations, not a community of shared dogmas'. And Hanukkah surely demonstrates the truth of this statement. Here is one holiday and yet see how many different understandings of what it means co exist side by side within the Jewish tradition.

Zion and Spectre teach us how to respect and learn from each of these Hanukkahs. They bring together understandings of Hanukkah that come from many diverse places. Where else do Arthur Waskow and the Lubavitcher Rebbe, for example, appear in the same book?

Hanukkah at Westerbork concentration campFor me, the highlight of these two books are the incredible photographs by and of children. There is a black and white photograph at the beginning of Jewish children in a Nazi transit camp, in 1943, gathered around a menorah, with such grim and sombre expressions on their faces. And then, all through the books, there are photographs of Jewish children in America and in Israel celebrating Hanukkah with such grins and smiles on their faces.

These two books are jam packed with ideas and insights. The insights of the major modern and contemporary Jewish thinkers are all included--Milton Steinberg, Harold Schulweis, Yitz Greenberg, David Hartsman, Herman Wouk, and many more. But make no mistake: this is not just a philosophical or intellectual anthology, not at all. There are wonderful cartoons, and information on food and fun, on gambling and gift giving, on songs and games of skill and choice, on sports and arts and crafts and drama, and even on scientific experiments with light. These two editors are first rate educators and so they provide a grab bag full of program ideas for the family and for the community.

Whatever Hanukkah means, one thing for sure--it is not for children only. These two books are treasurehouses of material that will not only help children celebrate the holiday but will enable their parents to understand and appreciate it too.

Rabbi Jack Riemer is the co editor of So That Your Values Live On, published by Jewish Lights of Woodstock, Vt. and the chair of the National Rabbinic Network, a support system for rabbis across all the denominational lines.