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Hanukkah's Real (And Imagined) History


Next Tuesday evening is a holiday in my house - Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights. It's one of those festivals that make for the old joke summing up Jewish holidays - they tried to kill us. We won. Let's eat. In this case, they were the Syrian Greeks who, a couple of centuries before the time of Jesus, took control of Judea and did their best to hellenize the locals. The Maccabees rebelled, retook the Temple in Jerusalem and rededicated it - Hanukkah means dedication in Hebrew. And this year, I read some interesting observations about Hanukkah in historian Simon Schama's book, "The Story of the Jews." And Simon Schama joins us from London. Welcome to the program.


SIEGEL: First, Hanukkah is eight days long, and you write that it may have been structured to be an eight-day holiday by the heirs of the Maccabees.

SCHAMA: Yes, that's right. The Hasmonean dynasty who declare themselves, rather scandalously in terms of tradition, simultaneously High Priests and Kings which actually had been a no-no. They needed a major festival. This was kind of a politically-instituted festival to rewrite a little bit the story by which they had come to power and particularly to emphasize the endless hostility between being Jewish and being Greek which in fact had not been the case for a long time. They chose eight days for Hanukkah because it was the same number of days for the feast of Tabernacles for Sukkot, and they wanted it to be as important in the Jewish ritual calendar as Tabernacles. But the rabbis later on said no, no, no, no - there's something fishily human about Hanukkah. And it's not mentioned in the Torah or in the Bible, so it's going to be an unofficial holiday which means we can all drive to the latkes.

SIEGEL: The potato pancakes.

SCHAMA: The potato pancakes, yes. This was not a feature of either Judean, Syrian or Greek cooking - the latke, I'm afraid.

SIEGEL: Eight days is also the length of Passover, and so they were creating a holiday that was a twinned story of great national liberation.

SCHAMA: Yes. They may have had the Feast of Esther, actually, which is not that long but is also a story of - is exactly a story of they tried to kill us. We won. Let's eat. But you have to remember really that there hadn't been a Jewish kingdom for a long time before the Maccabean Revolt created some sort of independent Jewish state. It was then spectacularly successful. It started to conquer a lot of its neighbors and actually forced Judaism on them. But the story which we all know about...


SCHAMA: The miracle of the oil, did this shock you, Robert, that it didn't happen?

SIEGEL: The first time I learned this it did shock me, but the official story was they came and they found enough oil in the Temple to keep the eternal flame going for only one day, but it lasted miraculously for eight.

SCHAMA: Yes - didn't happen.

SIEGEL: Didn't happen.

SCHAMA: Sorry, everybody, on that. Well, this was an invention from centuries later by the rabbis who wrote the Mishnah and the Talmud. No latkes in that case, actually, 'cause...

SIEGEL: Yes. The importance is that they're burned in oil - they're cooked in oil.

SCHAMA: Indeed, indeed, yes.

SIEGEL: That's the only significance, I guess. The way that you write about it - the question facing Jews in the Greek civilization that dominated the Middle East after the time of Alexander the Great - the question wasn't so much do we become Greek or Jews, but rather just being how Greek is being too Greek is really the question.

SCHAMA: Exactly, exactly, exactly. There were all sorts of ways in which it was not a problem anymore than it's a problem being Jewish-American. Everybody spoke Greek. Everybody dressed indistinguishably from other Greeks. I think actually what we're celebrating is, you know, the difficulties of pluralism which could not be more resonant in the contemporary world. How do you stay faithful to one kind of religion while living as a part of a much broader religion which may not agree but without the obligation to exterminate each other? What happens in the Hanukkah story when it's rewritten is, you know, quite true account of this one particular demented King Antiochus the fourth who decides that this is impossible and the Jews are not allowed to eat kosher food and the Temple must be desecrated and rededicated to Dionysus. What's striking is that when he's got rid of - when he's defeated, the Jews come back to a rather easygoing relationship with their language, their dress, their literature, and they become again perfectly, happily Hellenized Jews.

SIEGEL: Simon Schama, thank you very much for talking with us.

SCHAMA: It's a pleasure. Happy Hanukkah, Robert.

SIEGEL: Thank you.

SCHAMA: Try not to overdo the latkes.

SIEGEL: I shall try. Simon Schama's book that we've been talking about, by the way, where he writes about the story of the Jews through 1492 is called "The Story of the Jews".


MATISYAHU: (Singing) Oh eight nights, eight lights and these rites keep me right. And bless me to the highest heights with your miracle. Do you believe in miracles? Am I hearing you?


You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.