When I was asked to participate in the Nice Jewish Girls Chanukah Chomedy Show, I was thrilled! When I was asked to tell the Chanukah story as my stand-up routine, I was…well, TERRIFIED. The Chanukah Story is not exactly funny source material. In the name of trusting the path and doing scary shit, I accepted the challenge and took on the job of making the Chanukah story both entertaining and informative (if you read to the end, there MAY be a link to watch me perform it). Happy reading and Happy Chanukah! (Also, I did my best to make this historically accurate…or as historically accurate as one can make a story that happened thousands of years ago).
THE CHANUKAH STORY AS TOLD BY ME:
So, we are all here tonight for some comedy, right? To sit back amongst other members of the tribe, and share some laughs. Well, my job this evening, as we are only a few days away from lighting the first candle, is to share with you the Chanukah story…because nothing says comedy and laughter like war and persecution. So, let’s begin, shall we?
As all good Jewish stories go, the story of Chanukah begins with our oppression and ends with us eating.
For the sake of saving time, we will skip ahead in the story a bit…fast forward to the year 3586 (174 BCE). Israel was part of the Syrian-Greek Empire (which makes so much sense to me now when I think of how I connected I felt to the movie, My Big Fat Greek Wedding. It was like being home. Ian says, I’m not hungry and the Greek mom says, “okay…I’ll make you something.” If that isn’t a Jewish mom, I don’t know what is).
Up until that point, Jews, while oppressed, were still allowed some religious freedoms. In 3586, when Antiochus IV began to reign, he wanted to unite all of the people with one common culture and religion (spoiler alert…it was NOT Judaism). In addition to restricting all other religions, he also further restricted Jewish laws, removed the High Priest, Yochanan, from the Temple in Jerusalem, and replaced him with Yochanan’s brother, Joshua, who called himself Jason (which feels very ahead of the times seeing as all of the Jasons I know were born in the 1980’s). Jason was a Hellenistic Jew, which means he believed in idol worship. He continued to spread Greek customs throughout the land. Some of the more urban Jews were into this idea and assimilated to the new Greek customs while the more, let’s call them suburban Jews, who were more observant, were angry with those choosing to assimilate.
Antiochus was busy at war with Egypt and got super mad about some stuff that happened in Jerusalem while he was gone. Wild guess who he took that out on. Rhymes with the “News”…all together now…THE JEWS. He forced his army to attack the Jewish people and stripped them of all of their religious rights. Any observance: resting on Shabbat, circumcision, keeping kosher, were all punishable by death. As if being circumcised was not punishment enough. Oh, and they had to worship Greek gods…GREEK GODS. Like ZEUS…ZEUS!!!! Aside from learning about Zeus in the Greek mythology unit in Mrs. Smith’s 4th grade, I sincerely did not know that people ACTUALLY prayed to him…but I digress…and I clearly did not pay enough attention in school. A LOT of Jews died because they refused to worship idols.
In a town called Modiin, the Syrians built an alter, to which the Jews were forced to make sacrifices. The old priest, Mattityahu refused, and when a Hellenistic Jew went to make a sacrifice to the alter, Mattityahu grabbed his sword and killed him. (And people say Jews are not tough). He figured Antiochus would be pretty pissed, so he left the village with many of his followers. They hid, but sometimes came out to destroy the alters that were being built by the Syrians. Before his death, Mattityahu declared that his sons and and followers should continue to fight to protect the Torah…and that they would be led by his son, Judah the Strong…Judah Maccabee….whose name also means the Hammer. This leads me to some food for thought: we have Zeus, a god…and we have the Hammer. When I hear about gods and hammers, it leads me to wonder if anyone has ever seen Judah Maccabee and Thor in the same room? Think about it. I love to think that the Marvel universe is actually lead by a 6’5” hunky blonde Jewish man. Now, there’s a movie series I could really get behind.
After multiple attempts at defeating Judah and the Maccabees (also his album title), eventually the war was done…BUT NOT HOW YOU THINK! Well, that could be wrong…I don’t know what you think happened, but this part of the story is actually nothing like I remember it. Thank goodness I actually did a bunch of research and had conversations with my cantor, to make sure I got this all straight before sharing it with all of you.
Antiochus sent a small army, thinking they could defeat the Maccabees, but the Maccabees won. So, Antiochus sent a GIANT freaking army, and Judah and the Maccabees were like, heeeeey, let’s not fight…let’s work this out…and they came up with a PEACE TREATY. They talked it out. The Jews were given back religious freedoms and the Jews and Greeks began to co-exist. A while later, the Greek Syrian army left Jerusalem to go fight elsewhere. When they left, Judah and Maccabees then stormed the temple in Jerusalem and regained control. They removed the idols in the Temple placed there by the Syrians. They built a new alter and dedicated it on the 25th day of the month of Kislev in the year 3622 (139 BCE). See, I told you we would speed right through…we have already spent 35 years together.
The golden menorah had been stolen (this part is apparently a bit left up to interpretation, as I suppose all of this is since none of us were actually there), so the Maccabees built a new one with a cheaper metal. Who says Jewish men aren’t handy? Now, here’s the part we ALL know and love where shit (can I say shit at this event?) gets crazy: they found only enough pure olive oil (the rest had been tainted by sacrificed pigs and such) to burn for one day. By some miracle (Jews…we love a good miracle), the oil burned for eight days until more pure oil became available.
To thank G-d for the miracle, the sages made latkes (I might be making that part up, but I did promise that the story ended with us eating). In all seriousness, the sages declared eight days that the oil burned days of giving thanks to G-d….for real. So, the next time someone tells you that Chanukah is just Jewish Christmas, I invite you to think back on our time here together tonight and then confidently and kindly let them know that Chanukah is ACTUALLY the Jewish Thanksgiving.