As a child, here’s how I was taught: the evil Syrian king, Antiochus, forced the poor, innocent Jews to pray to a statue of the king in their holy Jerusalem Temple along with other bad rules to keep them from living a good Jewish life. Mattathias Maccabee and his heroic son Judas, practically by themselves, defeated the large armies of the evil king. The next day, when they returned from the war, there was only enough oil to light the holy lamp in the temple for one day. They knew it would take eight days to get a new supply. A miracle occurred: the holy lamp stayed lit for eight days! Hooray. The end. Now lets sing some songs, eat some potato pancakes (latkes), and play a spin-the-top game (dreidl/sivivon) to win chocolate money (gelt). Here’s a little present for the kids each night you light the next candle (left to right in increasing numbers); don’t even look at those other kids getting presents on December 25th. That’s their holiday. . .
To stay positive: latkes are delicious (I prefer mine with granny smith applesauce, not sour cream), dreidl is fun (who doesn’t enjoy a good casino night), my family did celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas (yay more presents) and a sharing celebration of lights during a dark time of year and a celebration of religious self-determination are good things. But. . .
There was no “Syrian king Antiochus.” Seleucid Emperor Antiochus IV Epiphanes (the Seleucid Empire was one of the divisions of Alexander the Great’s Macedonian Empire – notice how I didn’t say Greek or Syrian here) had been fighting against the Seleucid’s perpetual rival, the Ptolemy brothers of Egypt (the Ptolemaic Empire was another division of Alexander’s empire) around 170 BCE (notice I included a date – heaven forbid giving us kids context). While the emperors were distracted, there was a small civil war going on in the Judean province of the Seleucid Empire: a few families were vying for the job of Temple High Priest, with its political and financial privileges. The High Priest Menelaus, appointed by Emperor Antiochus IV Epiphanes, was losing. The Emperor left his perpetual war in order to come to Jerusalem and reinforce his choice against the usurper, Jason. Both sides were “upper class;” they and much of the “middle class” (if you could call it that) were assimilated – they spoke the Greek language, dressed in Greek fashion, went to Greek theater (I wonder if Oedipus Rex or Medea were playing that season), and attended Greek wrestling at the gymnasium (“Goldie, I noticed your grandson spends a lot of time at the wrestling expositions and even more time at his theater job. How is he going to meet a nice Jewish girl? Well, Yenta, let’s talk about same-sex marriage. . .”).
When the Emperor reinstalled Menelaus, he did outlaw Jewish rites (like circumcision and Torah study) and ordered polytheistic idolatry (pray to Zeus and the Imperial statues). Similar to today, assimilated folks would probably not worry too much about that: they had secular jobs and secular social lives. The “lower class,” however, were much more right-wing in their religious orientation. Mattathias Maccabee was a conservative, small-town traditionalist. Angry that the deep-state was taking away his right to impose his strict religious beliefs on his neighbors, he murdered a few local assimilationists and rallied his family and supporters to make Judea great again, using their best para-military weaponry and propaganda tactics against these Seleucid immigrants. Does any of this sound familiar?
The Maccabee insurrection lasted about 7 years (167-160 BCE) with both sides winning and losing various battles. While there was a rededication of the Second Temple (not the First Temple built by Solomon but the Second Temple built around 500 BCE after the Judeans were allowed to return from Babylon by the new Persian Empire), the descendents of the Maccabee traditionalists (all 5 of Mattathias’ sons died violent deaths) had politically aligned themselves with the growing Roman Republic and rapidly encouraged the same assimilationist culture against which they originally fought. Hmmmm. In their victory, the newly formed Hasmonean dynasty expanded their land holdings, forced their culture on their neighbors (including the province of Idumea where a young fellow named Herod grew up in the governor’s mansion), and created their own political and culture wars, resulting in various movements: Essenes, Sadducees and Pharisees.
So, where did the whole “miracle of the lights” come from? The spiritual heirs to the Pharisees, the Rabbis who compiled the Talmud in the first centuries of the Roman Imperial era, clearly were embarrassed by an outdated celebration of military victory – particularly in light of Roman oppression. Alternatively, a celebration of lights during the dark time of the year with its emphasis on deity-based miracles certainly sets up a better theme. Now, as most of this is my opinion, I can understand why many of these details were not explained to five and six year olds in their suburban Jewish community centers and religious schools of the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s. However, some of the details are important: secular celebration, esoteric emphasis on light in the darkness, cultural and political self-determination are all fabulous themes. . .but not quite as delicious as home-made potato pancakes. Mmmmm. Happy Hanukkah.