Every year when December rolls around, the
days get very short, the first snow falls and the Christmas lights begin to
shine. I remember the Decembers of my youth. Like virtually all Jews, I grew up
in a predominantly Christian country and, also like all Jews, played some small
part in maintaining the Jewish nationality in the face of an overwhelmingly
Christmas was always a particularly difficult time. For one thing, in the days
before the Charter of Rights and Freedoms was incorporated into the Canadian
constitution, school authorities paid very little attention to the sensitivities
or even the existence of non-Christians. We were taught the “story of Christmas”
over and over and over. We listened with not a little sympathy to the stories of
Christ’s coming and later, at Easter time we mourned with everyone else the
manifestly cruel, unjust execution of this quintessentially good person.
There was very little fault we could find with Jesus. As we grew older we
learned that we did not “believe in him”. This didn’t mean we believed in
something opposed to what he stood for - that would be hard to imagine - but,
rather, that he simply was not part of us. Because of that, we reasoned, we
didn’t have the right to join in the Christmas celebrations - the trees, the
lights, the carols, which, if truth were known, we would have very readily
Older still, we would be asked by Christian friends - now somewhat more aware of
the minorities around them than they had been before - whether this holiday,
this “Chanukah” which fell at roughly the same time, had anything to do with
To tell you the truth, most of us didn’t know and then, when we asked our Hebrew
school teachers, we were told, emphatically, that there was no connection, none
whatsoever. In many ways we were sorry. Not because it meant we were different,
(we were used to that), but, rather, because it made us feel marginal. Besides,
compared to Christmas, what was this story of oil that burned for seven days
longer than it should have at the end of a victory over some Syrian king whose
name we could barely pronounce?
So we grew older, learned a little more about our own heritage - including the
significance of holidays such as Chanukah - and gradually laid our childish envy
of decorated trees, Santa Claus, and those well- remembered carols aside just as
we had laid aside so many other childish fantasies and longings. How incredibly
unfortunate - on so many levels.
With all due apologies to the Hebrew school teachers and rabbis who so
diligently taught and still teach otherwise, it is my personal contention that,
while Christmas celebrations may not have any direct relation to Chanukah,
Christ certainly does. And once the connection is understood, we can not only
listen to “the Story of Christmas” with a little less self-imposed alienation
but, far more importantly, can, while doing so, learn a great deal more about
what it means to be Jewish and, for that matter, what it means to be Christian.
Despite the glories of the kingdom of David and some very limited periods, the
history of the Jewish people is one of a nationality fighting for survival
against a very much larger, often hostile world. From the time the Jews returned
to the Promised land till the day, some 11 - 12 hundred years later when Israel
was destroyed and its people scattered there were, at best, perhaps three or
four centuries when Israel was not part of some larger, foreign empire -
Egyptian, Syrian and eventually Greek and Roman.
For all of that, Jews maintained their nationhood. Control of a political state
and absolute independence was one thing, the Nation of Israel was another.
One hundred and sixty five years before the event that led to all those
celebrations I so envied as a child, Israel was part of a remnant of Alexander’s
Greek empire centred in Syria. The Greek presence and Greek culture were
everywhere. Jews split. Some, generally known as Sadducees, somewhat more
worldly, generally more wealthy and centred in Jerusalem argued that it was
foolish to resist the Greek empire. Arguing, as some Canadians are wont to do
when advocating NAFTA, and closer ties to the US, they maintained that
resistance to the inevitable was futile and the nation would be better served by
learning to accommodate itself to the world power of their day.
Others, living in the outlying regions of the country, less sophisticated,
worldly or impressed with the imperatives of “the global economy” - and more
concerned with tradition and preservation of their own nationality, were
inclined to resist. Those on the other side went so far as to invite armies of
the foreigners to help put down the brewing rebellion.
But, when the outside world impinged too far, the nation, at first represented
by only a small band from the tiny village of Modin and then, gradually, united
to the point of near unanimity, revolted. Against all odds, including many
leading Jews who at first sided with the foreigners, they and their leaders -
“the Maccabees” - succeeded. Independence was declared, the temple, national
symbol for countless centuries, was cleansed of all things foreign and Israel
stood as both an independent state and the homeland of a universally recognized
One hundred and sixty five years later, the drama was about to be replayed. The
worldly wealthy in Jerusalem were now trading their awe of Greece for that of
Rome. Latin was the language, Roman was the dress and the nationality of the
Hebrews was muted. As before, there were those on the outside who, again
concerned for the preservation of their nationality, became restive and began to
balk at the new “inevitables”. There was tension and challenges to the
leadership in Jerusalem. Again, the latter requested help from the empire to put
down the apprehended insurrection.
The resistance grew and some of it, we are told, came from a young rabbi in the
Galilee who spoke poor Latin, was awkward and gauche when facing the
sophisticates in the capital and then, or so it was charged, having given up any
hope of changing matters by preaching, was preparing to lead a rebellion when he
was arrested, tried and crucified. Who and what he was exactly is something that
Jews and Christians have disagreed about for two thousand years.
Some things, however, are irrefutable. He was executed, along with hundreds of
others suspected of more or less the same intentions. The rebellion, when it
finally came some forty years later was bravely fought but, unlike that led by
the Maccabees, failed. The failure led, not, as had usually been the case in the
past, to the State of Israel being forced to trade independence for subservient
status as a province of the larger empire but, to its total destruction and
dispersion of its people.
What followed could not have been foreseen by anyone and is, in fact, unique in
the annals of human history. While deprived of a homeland, the Nation of Israel
refused to die. Instead, for two thousand years, it continued. It grew in
numbers and expanded its culture and religion until it became the universally
known beacon that God had promised Abraham it would.
But everywhere its people found themselves a minority. And in foreign lands,
even in those less hostile than most, when the majority celebrated their
religion and traditions, little boys were often envious of those who, unlike
themselves, seemed “to belong” and were left to wonder why they were different
and so apparently insignificant.
How easily this false image could have been corrected, how immeasurably more
proud we would have been, and, most important of all, how much more enlightening
our consideration of this situation would have been - had the Hebrew teachers
and rabbis not been so quick to insist “there is no connection”!