Radio Free New Hampshire: my annual Hanukkah column; This party fascinates me

It’s time for my annual Hanukkah column. This holiday fascinates me.

As a child, I thought it was simple. The story is told thus: a handful of pious Jews rebelled against the Greeks who ruled their country, because these Greeks had tried to prohibit the proper worship of God. Against all odds, this rebellion succeeded and this band of priests and soldiers was able to reestablish the former independent kingdom of Judea. Among other things, they still minted their own money, because happy governments do it. This is why we eat chocolate coins to celebrate their victory. And no, I don’t know where this idea came from, to eat toy money. A genius chocolate maker, I guess.

Either way, most of it is wrong. What happened looked more like a civil war, in which almost all modern Jews would likely have taken the wrong side. That is why we do not teach these things to children.

The parties were four in number.

These imperial rulers were none other than the Seleucid dynasty of Syria, the local heirs of Alexander the Great. The Seleucids ruled a capable empire, which contained many Jews in many different territories; among them, Judea itself, with its capital in Jerusalem. Like most successful Imperial types, the Seleucids maintained a skillful touch. They left people alone as long as they paid their taxes. But they also rewarded those who advance their causes.

Then there were the Jews of Jerusalem, the great urban center, whose interests tended to be aligned with those of their imperial governors. Think about international trade policy and urban development. Also think about cultural tolerance and progressive ideals.

Then there were the country Jews (see where this leads, folks?), Who disliked and distrusted their city brethren. Think of the farmers, who found their crops undervalued, who never believed their brokers were honest, and who both feared and hated Jerusalem’s cultural leanings. These types of countries were nationalists. They were deeply conservative and they didn’t want a Greek culture mixed with their faith.

Then there were the Egyptians (and that’s my favorite part, because the standard story doesn’t mention them at all). Heir to a distinct legacy from Alexandria, the Ptolemy dynasty actively competed for wealth and influence with its own Greek brethren, those same Seleucids of Syria. Moreover, in ruling Egypt, a country with an ancient and highly centralized administration, Ptolemy’s bureaucracy had adopted Egyptian ways. While the Seleucids were an active and modernizing force on their lands, the Ptolemies tended to reward stasis: the rural mentality at large.

The stage was set. Two competing empires, two ways of doing business, a small piece of land separating their armies and two local parties grappling with cultural, political and financial difficulties. Supported by Egypt, the rural rebels made their movement. The urban establishment called on its sponsors. The Seleucids responded, rightly seeing this action against Jerusalem as the hidden expression of a Ptolemaic power movement. The battle was on. But empires can be too large, and the Seleucids turned out to be just that. They lost a war of attrition that lasted for many years. And so we eat pieces of chocolate.

There is a surprisingly modern feel to this story. Aside from sandals and spears, the cut and thrust of the big game strategy still shines through the millennia. But we don’t celebrate any of that. Rather, we celebrate the unlikely victory of this backward, rural religion: the victory of the Conservative Party over its progressive enemies.

This cultural triumph did not last. In seizing power in Jerusalem, the new rulers soon fell prey to the same influences as their ancestors. The rural dynasty became corrupted and the small territory it ruled remained subjugated to the great empires that surrounded it.

What was really gained was one more step in the formation of the Jewish religion. Ancient Jews never believed in an afterlife, for example. But during this bloody rebellion, the Jews in the countryside started talking about one anyway. The irony here is rich: although they defended the old ways, they themselves changed those ways. They wrote about the martyrs for their cause, who would be rewarded in times to come.

This thought has taken root in our faith. He solved the theological problem of how to deal with the suffering of innocent human beings. Without it, in fact, the story of Jesus and all that follows from it might not have been possible.

So happy Chanukah. It happens early this year, by the way. It starts on the Sunday after Thanksgiving. Lots of time to eat that chocolate, before all those Christmas cookies can take center stage.

Author Michael Davidow to speak in Manchester on December 15

Michael Davidow is a lawyer in Nashua. He is the author of Gate City, Split Thirty and The Rocketdyne Commission, three novels about politics and advertising that together form The Henry Bell Project, The book of the order, and his most recent, The Hunter of Talyashevka. They are available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

This story was originally published by InDepth NH.

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