Approaching the 100th anniversary of Yeshiva Toras Chaim, which was founded some 96 years ago in East New York and merged with Yeshiva of South Shore in 1963, I was going through some old photographs from my kindergarten days. In one small black and white snapshot, I was a bearded Maccabee, white cotton balls glued asymmetrically around my face. I held a cardboard sword wrapped in aluminum-foil coated with a matching (clumsily concocted) shield hanging loosely from my tiny frame.
It was dated 1962. The old black and white photo showed another kid, my Greek adversary. He was cowering in fright from my fierce display of might. I don’t remember the play, but we all know the script. I won the battle.
Truth be told, as a kid, the Chanukah story was always hard to digest. True, Chanukah was a powerful spiritual story that resonated with so many important themes. There was holiness and sanctity, and mesirus nefesh. But somehow, back in the 1960s, ‘70s and even into the ‘80s, amidst this country’s atmosphere of freedom for all faiths, the particular idea of governments forcing a different culture upon them was almost archaic. Of course, we always had the Evil Empire to use as a moshol, but that was a country that never had Jews learning Torah, not for 40 years before I was born.
As a rebbi of younger children, even teens, it was hard to have children fully comprehend the terror of being Jews in Eretz Yisroel at the time of Greek control when telling them the Chanukah story. Killing Jews they all knew about. The tales of terror against Jews, be it crusades, inquisitions or the Holocaust, are part of the historical repertoire of almost any Jewish child across the globe. Even in a relatively stable exile, everyone has had their “kill the Jew” story. It is something that pervades our society, even in the best of times. And if kids did not get those words as an overt invective, they certainly got a dirty look, an ah-choo or pennies thrown at them. Some even experienced a curse or expletive that was hurled their way, or some form of physical intimidation.
When I relate the story of Chanukah to American children, however, it is always hard for me to make the decree come alive and couch it in a modern perspective. As an educator, it was once hard for me to convey a concept that our government would issue a decree directing citizens to “study what we tell you to study and join our culture.” We were not used to anyone saying to pious, Torah observant Jews, “We love you! Just put away your Gemaros and all will be good.” It was always so much easier to frame it in the context of the Soviet Union or other oppressive anti-religious regimes.
The story of assimilation and lost souls is not a new story, as it is part of the Jewish American experience. Often, the causal agents are the pressures of society, individual desire, curiosity and an erosion of individual commitment. The story of Chanukah was not simply a tale of military might and the re-consecration of the Bais Hamikdosh. It was a story of the rejection of the Greek concept of assimilation, consolidation and unanimity of thought. It was an attempt by the Greeks to have Torah observant Jews abandon their beliefs and allow the Greeks to determine what was right and what was wrong. The Greeks wanted to tell the Jews of the time what to study and when. What was important to know and what was not. When to study and when to play. How do you teach that Chanukah concept to a grade school yeshiva student? The notion of assimilation without physical harm is abstract.
I doubt that anyone ever told a child that Kiddush Levanah or Rosh Chodesh is simply wrong and unscientific.
So how did Chanukah find relevance when being transmitted to students in the modern-era? It was always made applicable in the age-old association of modern practices of Judaism to the Hellenists of old, a constant theme that reverberated throughout my yeshiva years. The Hellenists were the reformers.
The late Rabbi Moshe Sherer zt”l wrote in a Chanukah essay:
The Jewish camp in the days of Antiochus was split. The Hellenists stressed the outer forms of Judaism, the ceremonial. All they saw in the menorah was the pure glittering gold, which pleased their aesthetic sense. The Chashmonaim (Hasmoneans), in contrast, looked deeper and saw pure oil, the inner warmth emanating from a light kindled in holiness. Concern solely with the externals of religion leads ultimately to golah, a loss of Jewish cohesiveness. The road to geulah demands penetration to the substance, commitment to the core – to content.
In recent years, Madison Avenue has developed a booming Chanukah industry in an effort to exploit the menorah, as they did, lehavdil, with the [X-mas] tree. During this season, newspaper advertisements offer Chanukah greeting cards, Chanukah candies, Chanukah wrapping paper. With all the hoopla, the meaning of Chanukah has had little impact on the under-educated Jew. Contrast this with the experience of our grandparents; many of them lit their lights in crude utensils, but the candles they kindled penetrated every nook of their homes.
Like the Hellenists, our generation has enthroned the externals of the menorah and extended this philosophy into all aspects of Jewish living. We have taken a leaf from the lessons of the legendary marketing genius, Elmer Wheeler, who instructed restaurateurs: “Don’t sell the steak, sell the sizzle!” By selling the sizzle of mitzvos, instead of the life-giving substance of Yiddishkeit, the spiritual hucksters have sent our generation down the golah road, instead of the road to geulah.
As we had no Antiochus forcing Jews to close their Gemaros, the rabbi transformed the Hellenists into Madison Avenue, sports figures and celebrities. The Yevonim were the lure of fast cars and designer clothes.
We did not need to make a comparison to the soldiers who forced Jews to hide in caves and spin dreidels. And we were all the better for it.
So Chanukah transformed into shmuessen about the power of the pach hashemen, and kedushas Yisroel, and inyonei kedusha, and the influence of the outside world. And they were all extremely powerful and potent themes.
But for the past few years, everything has changed, and the story resonates in real time. Poshut p’shat.
The New York State Education Department is about to begin enforcing the concept of substantial equivalency. This seems to be a close reenactment of the Chanukah story that was just a history lesson of an unimaginable era of Jewish history in the eyes of the American yeshiva boy. We screamed, we yelled, we wrote letters, and, for the most part, we voted for a governor who promised to be the best friend that yeshivos ever had.
But some of us get tired. Some of us feel: Let’s wait and see what happens. Even if the Antiochus-like decree impedes five minutes of Torah study in a yeshiva, it is the epic battle of the Chashmonaim. If a yeshiva that has a mesorah to limit limudei chol to a certain amount of time must now shift their tradition, it is a breach that needs a miraculous army to overcome.
Chanukah is coming. Once again, I gaze at the picture of me grasping my cardboard sword wrapped in aluminum foil and staving off an attack from a Greek aggressor who wanted to control what I studied, what I was taught, and what I thought. I wonder about Jewish children who may have to hide their Gemaros and spin their protractors in the face of a sudden government inspection at 11 o’clock in the morning.
I wonder about a menahel who has to answer to a school superintendent who believes that the Torah studies are irrelevant and the boys would be better off playing in the “Parthenon.”
I have no cardboard sword to unsheathe and that is not our path. But we can’t let our guard down and allow ourselves to forget the machinations that may be going on while we wait for the gears to turn. As we light the menorah this year, let’s not forget the battles that allowed the oil to burn.