Many of our Jewish friends (and relatives) are now celebrating the eight days of Hannukah. Our Muslim friends have celebrated Eid el-Adha and will mark their New Year on, I believe, December 18. Those of us who grew up in the Christian tradition are making preparations for Christmas…
(Actually, I believe that in all countries far from the Equator, the “turning of the geophysical year”– the period when the days start once again to become longer– is marked with many different kinds of joyous festivals.)
Here are a few holiday notes I wanted to share.
1. As many of us make plans to gather together families that have become widely dispersed due the stresses of modern life, let’s spare a thought for all those whose families have been widely dispersed by circumstance but who are unable to gather their families together at holidays or any other times, because of movement-control systems, other governmental restrictions, or sheer lack of resources to travel.
2. Some Quaker friends in Ann Arbor, Michigan have designed a beautiful holiday card (PDF here), that they are selling, with the proceeds to go to UNRWA. They give this information about ordering the cards:
4″x 5″ cards are blank inside and come with envelopes. 15 cards for $15 plus postage. Email your order to <email@example.com>, stating the number you want and your address, phone, & email. Allow one week for delivery. Invoice will be sent with order.
3. Tony Karon, the brilliant author of the “Rootless Cosmopolitan” blog, had a great post December 11 in which he explored the history and meaning of the Jewish celebration of Hannukah.
He starts with this thought-provoking picture:
In a country occupied by a Western power, the locals are faced with a choice. Some have opted to reconcile their own traditions with those of their occupier, borrowing from Western ways that open the path to philosophy and science, and integrating themselves into a wider culture. Others fiercely resist, waging a bitter and bloody war not only on the occupier, but also on those in their own community who seek to collaborate or integrate with the occupiers who are denounced as defilers.
If this were contemporary Afghanistan-Pakistan, you’d know who was whom, right? But before you bite into that latke or sing the dreidel song, you may want to consider that in Judea in the second century BC, the Taliban role is played by the Maccabees. And it is the Maccabees, of course, who are lionized in the Hanukah tale.
He goes on to note the irony of the fact that it has been largely the “Hellenizers”, that is the accomodationists, in today’s western Jewish communities, who have adopted the celebration of Hannukah, in many cases to act as a parallel to the more prevalent celebration of Christmas.
As he notes,
Hanukah is not mentioned in the Torah. It’s not really a religious holiday at all — the bubbemeis about an oil lamp burning for eight days was tacked on as an afterthought, and a way of smuggling God into what was a ritual celebrating a very temporal insurgent military triumph.
… most of us are de facto Hellenizers, living according to the ways of the wider society and integrating our Jewishness within that. So what to make of this Jewish holiday that celebrates an austere, inward looking, nationalist identity politics…
But don’t get me wrong; I love Hanukah. I love it mostly because I’m a sucker for lox-’n-latkes and the communion around their consumption.
Right. It’s that getting back together with family and friends thing that’s important– preferably over some favorite family comfort food.
(Spare another thought for the people who can’t get back together with family, or don’t have access to the festive food.)
Karon then takes us here:
the Hanukah story is so patently Disney, and its purpose so negatively nationalist, that we need to consider just what it is about our Jewish identity that we want to celebrate. If I’m going to light eight candles in affirmation of my Judaism — boiled down, in a nutshell to Rabbi Hillel’s famous thumbnail definition of the faith, “That which is hateful unto yourself, do not do unto others; all the rest is commentary” — I don’t want to honor the Maccabee Taliban or their latterday incarnation who’re just as keen to police Jewish identity and enforce fealty to the nationalist vision that is modern Zionism. I want to honor those that exemplify an expansive, ethical Judaism that connects with a universal community of values and uses justice as its only benchmark.
Working with the format of eight candles, here’s a draft list of eight Jews for whom I’d be happy to light a yahrzeit candle to honor their contribution to enriching our identity through connecting it with and enriching a wider humanity.
His whole list is worth reading. But #1 seems particularly important to me:
1. Marek Edelman
I can think of no greater example than Marek Edelman of a Jew whose life so eloquently combined the three essential principles of Hillel: That which is hateful unto yourself, do not do unto others; if I am not for me who is for me?; and, If not now, when?
A time comes in the life of every people, Nelson Mandela in 1961, when it faces but two choices: Submit, or fight. Marek Edelman confronted that choice head on in 1942, as a young activist of the Jewish Socialist Bund in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942. Together with others of the left and Zionist organizations (the Bund was anti-Zionist), he helped form the Jewish Fighting Organization that organized the heroic (and the word is not used lightly here) uprising of the Warsaw Ghetto against the liquidationist plans of the Nazis. His account, The Ghetto Fights, makes gripping and moving reading, and negates the myth that Europe’s Jews went meekly to the slaughter. He survived the uprising and the ghetto’s liquidation, escaping with assistants from the leftist partisans of Poland’s People’s Army to become a leader of the underground, and eventually participate in a second heroic rising, the 1944 general Warsaw uprising. In the ultimate triumph over Nazi designs, he chose to remain in Poland after the war, and kept fighting the good fight — from 1976 onwards, he became a labor activist, and eventually in 1980 a leader of the Solidarity movement that helped end authoritarian rule in Poland. As he noted of his early affiliations, “The Bundists did not wait for the Messiah, nor did they plan to leave for Palestine. They believed that Poland was their country and they fought for a just, socialist Poland, in which each nationality would have its own cultural autonomy, and in which minorities’ rights would be guaranteed.” And he remained true to that vision.
He watched, disgusted, as Israel pummeled the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza in the Second Intifada, until he could contain his outrage no longer: In a move that infuriated the Israelis, who have constructed an elaborate — if ersatz — claim to be the heirs to the defenders of the Warsaw Ghetto, Edelman wrote a public letter to Marwan Barghouti, the Fatah leader then on trial for terrorism in Israel. It was the Palestinian fighting organizations, Edelman said, not the Israelis, who carry the mantle of the Warsaw Ghetto’s resistance. As Hillel said, that which is hateful unto yourself, do not do unto others. Edelman died last October.
I am so grateful to Tony for having brought us all those dimensions of Edelman’s life-story. You can get a few more from Edelman’s Wikipedia entry. I saw there that one of his admirers was my late friend Paul Foot, a very dedicated socialist activist who was the son of Hugh Foot (Lord Caradon).
Fwiw, Paul was born in Palestine, when his dad was in the region as a British colonial administrator. Paul died in November 2004. And so the world turns…