this is column 18
December 7, 2004

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 non-Jewish atmosphere. 

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 embraced. 

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 Christmas. 

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 people.  

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”!


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