FOR Jews all over the world, a familiar annual festival, celebrating the re-establishment of their religion in its purest form after a time of alien oppression, is about to begin. But for Jews in the United States, this year’s celebrations have an unusual, and slightly awkward, feature: they coincide with the secular, pan-American celebration of Thanksgiving.
Hanukkah, then, celebrates the rededication of the Jerusalem Temple, the focal point of Jewish worship, after an uprising against the Hellenised rulers of the eastern Mediterranean. These rulers had been trying to make the Jews follow the practices and culture of the pagan Greeks. The provocations came to a head in the year 167BC, when Emperor Antiochus decreed that an altar to Zeus should be erected in the Temple. He also banned circumcision and ordered the ritual sacrifice of pigs. Two years later, a revolt against the Hellenised dynasty was successful and the victorious Jews decreed that the Temple must be cleansed of impure influences and reconsecrated. The feast of Hanukkah, recalling this event, lasts for eight days and nights, and involves the lighting of the eight branches of a special menorah or candelabrum, plus a ninth candle which illuminates all the others. The lights recall a miraculous event that is said to have marked the rededication: a tiny quantity of olive oil was enough to keep the Temple menorah lit for eight days.
Hanukkah is a relatively minor Jewish festival, but it has gained importance as a family event in Western countries as a kind of counterweight to the Christian celebrations of the Nativity of Jesus Christ. It can fall any time between late November and late December; this year it falls early, and therefore roughly coincides with the time when Americans of all religious backgrounds remember how the Pilgrim Fathers, pioneers of European settlement in the New World, gratefully enjoyed the fruits of their first harvest. Hanukkah starts on the evening of November 27th, and this year’s Thanksgiving falls on November 28th.
So some American families will have to choose between the sweet potatoes which are traditional for Thanksgiving and the latkes or potatoes fried in oil which mark Hanukkah. Both the Pilgrim Fathers and the Jewish rebels against the Hellenised monarchy were asserting the right to practise their religion in all its purity and rigour. Perhaps that is enough commonality to bring the two celebrations together.