Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Eight fun facts of Chanuka

Put on your yarmulke, Here comes Hanukkah! So much funukah, To celebrate Hanukkah! 
 - Adam Sandler

Of all the holidays, Chanuka has always been my favorite. Courage, miracles, good guys, bad guys, soofganiyot, chocolate coins, and a week off school. What could be bad?

Of course, the greatest miracle of Chanuka is not gaining weight from all the latkes and donuts. I have it on excellent sources that during the holiday itself, calories evaporate.

The other greatest miracle is that we are still here, over 2000 years after Yehuda HaMacabi, lighting candles, remembering the Holy Temple and - even a greater miracle - doing so, once again, in our Land.

The story of Chanuka is one, not of victory, as is usually assumed (the war was eventually lost), but of hope. When it's the darkest, even a spark can dispel it; we have only but to light it.

One of the ways to celebrate Chanuka is learn about the holiday. So here are eight fun facts - one for each night - that you may or may not know. Please feel free to add your own.

1. The word dreidel is Yiddish, and means to spin. It is said that, in the time of the Greek occupation of the Holy Land, because Torah study was outlawed, youth would gather to learn in secret and bring games – sometimes a spinning top made of clay – with them. If foreign soldiers found them, they would seemingly be playing innocent sports. Therefore, the game of dreidel dreidel dreidel is over 2000 years old and still popular. Even if it’s not dry and ready.

2. A Menorah and a Chanukiah are NOT the same thing. The Menorah – a seven branched candelabra – was lit by the High Priest daily in the Holy Temple. It was made from one solid block of gold, and originally designed and built by Bezalel in the desert. Under Greek occupation, the Temple was profaned, and the ceremony was stopped. When the Temple was reclaimed by the Maccabees, the Menorah was once again relit with the famous pure bottle of oil that was found and which lasted eight days. A Chanukiah – a nine branched candelabra – is what we light to remember the Menorah. (A copy of the Temple Menorah has been rebuilt – at the reputed cost of three million dollars – and is on display on the stairs leading to the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem.)

3. The tradition of giving gifts – usually coins (or gelt—money in Yiddish) – to children was to reward them for learning Torah and to teach them to give tzadaka – charity. Keeping up with Xmas had nothing to do with it. Chocolate is good too. 

4. The Maccabean war against the Greeks was actually a civil war against Hellenized (i.e., assimilated) Jews. Many Jews, it seemed, wanted to be more Greek than the Greeks, and thought the ‘Orthodox Jews’ antiquated, primitive, and barbaric. They dismissed the practice of Brit Mila (it spoils the 'perfect form'), desecrated the Sabbath (time cannot be holy, only men and the gods), ridiculed the laws of modesty (they played sports in the nude as was Greek custom, showing off the 'perfect form'), and dishonored the Holy Torah (reading, instead, the Greek plays and legends). The Maccabees brought Jewish life back to the HolyLand. Over the years, this bit of the story was overlooked, mostly because it was considered 'unpleasant' to bring up the fact of internecine fighting.  

This would have gone down well. 

5. The Greeks were actually Seleucids (and not Greek at all), whose center of power was in today’s Syria (and not Athens) and, at the time of the Chanuka story, was ruled by Antiochus IV. He added the name ‘Epiphanes’ to his own—meaning God’s Manifest. However, the Jews called him Epimames–the mad-man. He was not a very nice man.

Bust of Antiochus IV

6. The Maccabees weren’t really an army. If they were around today, chances are they would look like a cross between charedim and IDF soldiers. (Something to think about.)

something like this

7. Chanuka is the only Jewish holiday without its own book to read. The Book of Maccabees, which tells of the early wars and the rededication of the Temple and other stories associated with the wars, was originally written in Hebrew, but survived only in Greek. (It's been re-translated back into Hebrew, English, and other languages). For various reasons, it was not included in the canonization of the Bible. 

in Latin

in Greek

8. The Maccabean revolt lasted over 20 years. The re-dedication of the Temple occurred, probably, in the third year. The leader of the revolt, Matityahu, died in the first year. His sons took over, with Yehuda the Maccabbee leading. Yehuda was killed shortly after the rededication of the Temple. Of the five sons, only one – Shimon – survived the wars. He ushered in 80 years of Jewish independence, until infighting, dissension, and sedition allowed the Roman army to occupy the country, leading to the eventual destruction of the Holy Temple and the exile of the Jewish people from their Land.

There is another custom, one my friend E told me about and I wrote about here, and that is to describe, while the candles are burning, a miracle that happened to you. This is to publicize G-d mercy and greatness; that His miracles are are around us.

So while you're at it, feel free to tell me miracles.

Wishing all of Am Yisrael a happy and blessed Chanuka.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Good to the Last Walk

I like long walks, especially when they are taken by people who annoy me.
― Noël Coward

In the last few months, in the pursuit of a healthier lifestyle, I have taken to walking around my neighborhood. It turns out that simply not moving any of one’s muscles at all – ever – is not the optimum way of exercising.

And so, I have been striding up and down the streets around my home.

In the interests of full disclosure I must state that I dislike walking. I much prefer watching reruns of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Get Smart and eating cake crumbs (so that the calories leak out). However, I dislike walking less than I dislike, say, cooking or cleaning or doing laundry or waking up my kids to go to school or taking out the garbage or scraping the grunge off the stove or peeling potatoes or sewing elastic on old underwear rather than buy a new pair because the owner REALLY LIKES that pair and you can’t find them like that anymore or dusting the blinds or scrubbing the toilet or cleaning out the penicillin growing in the fridge or wiping down the light switches or making beds (actually I wouldn’t know about that – I’m not sure I’ve ever done it….) or, and especially, ironing.

In the summer, when it’s hot, I wait till late in the evening to go out, after the sun has gone down and the temperatures drop dramatically—from 39° C down to 35° C. (Just kidding about the dramatic part.) Actually, summer temperatures make a great excuse to sit at home and watch reruns of BTVS with a fan directly on my face. 

But when winter (and I use the word in the Israeli sense, hahahaha Old Country) comes, the weather actually invites walking. So, two, three, four, and  – once, memorably – FIVE times a week, I strap on my walking shoes and trudge forth. Lucky for me, winter only lasts a week and a half.

I live in a nice residential area on the south-western edge of Beer Sheva. 15 minutes of sprightly walking brings one to the edge of town, right into the desert. (It takes me about 45 minutes - I don't do spright.) Down the street from me is a ‘forest’ (forgive the term). Made up of a couple of acres of untended trees, mice, and a family of fox, the forest is used by youth groups for fun activities by day, and by slightly more unsavory youth for slightly more unsavory fun activities by night. The trees give the street the feel of ‘country’ within the city. Sometimes, there are sheep grazing, and once or twice the place has been visited by camels. That’s always fun. I avoid walking through the forest, but I do walk past it on my nocturnal wanderings. 

My forest
Not my forest

There are parks and tennis courts, shops, shuls, schools, a soccer field, and a running track all close to home. The streets are quiet and there is little traffic on the side roads. It’s a lovely area, and in the evenings – winter and summer – there are usually dozens and dozens of people out walking, running, jogging, skating, hiking, marching, rambling, strolling, strutting, and riding bikes. It really can be quite pleasant. 

However, this is Israel, and nothing is simple, even a walk in the park.

Beer Sheva is a quiet and safe town. The level of crime is relatively low. My kids have walked around at all hours of the day and night with no problems.

The other night was very quiet, with almost nobody around. I was at a crossroad, debating whether to turn left and take a shortcut home, or turn right and enjoy the quiet and the air for a little longer. Just then, an old dilapidated tender (is tender an English word? A small pick-up truck is what I want)[i] – the kind casual workers would use – stopped across from me and a young disheveled man got out, I immediately turned left , and scurried home.

An evening or two later, I ventured out again. It was earlier in the evening and I hoped more people would be around. I took my usual route, through quiet and dark streets. There were a few people walking, but in couples or in groups. I was the only lone walker. I had just reached a lighted busy street, when a man brushed past me. I let out a little scream and jumped out of both the way and my skin. I scared the man almost as badly, and I found myself apologizing to him. “You got scared?” asked the man’s walking companion – presumably his wife – “it’s the times. Everyone is jumpy”. I let the couple pass me, took several deep breaths, and continued on my way down a now well-lighted street with lots of traffic. 15 minutes later, relaxed and listening to Katy Perry (I know, I  know, don’t start), a high-pitch screeching whizzed by me on a bike. Maniacal laughter, which only a 12-year old can manufacture, could be heard in the distance. I picked myself - and my heart, which had jounced clear out of my body - up off the wall I had crashed into, and watched the kid ride away. So much for Katy Perry. I went home.

I’m not a nervous person, really I’m not. But Israel today seems to be full of angry, brainwashed people who find it fulfilling to stab/run over/throw stones at Jews. This can influence one's nerves. 

Warning: Graphic content.

I could go on and on. But I think the point has been made. These attacks come from anywhere, at any time, on anyone. All you have to do to get stabbed is be alive.

I’m still walking. I watch over my shoulder, and I stay on well-lit streets with lots of traffic. I’m brave, but not stupid. (All Israelis are de facto brave, and most are heroic.) Sometimes, it’s hard to hear Katy sing with the noise of the passing cars, but at least I get to pass the largest mall in the Middle East as I stride with head held high and eyes wide open .

If I’m going to dislike walking, it’s going to be on my terms, and nobody can take that away from me.

Except maybe Buffy and Angel.

[i] The myth goes that during the British Mandate, British soldiers would point to a 10-seater van and yell “ten over there and ten there! In Israelspeak, this became “ten der and ten der”. These vans became known as tenders. I don’t know if this is true.