Beliefnet
The oldest tradition of Hanukkah is that it celebrates many stories: the oneof freedom from religious oppression, the one of Jews fighting back againsttheir oppressors, and the one of communal struggle about what it means to bea Jew and how best to live that out. It is the story of unexpected fuelfound in unexpected places, providing light to an entire nation, and it isthe story of miracles and redemption in moments of darkness and despair.

These stories have been told in many languages: Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic,Latin, Yiddish and English. They've been told by every kind of Jew, andeven by non-Jews, from almost every nation on the face of the earth. Theyare tales of a people on a journey looking for ways to confront thechallenges that lay before them, and celebrating the victories that theyexperience along the way.

However, in American Jewish life, Hanukkah is often described as the storyof the Jewish fight against assimilation. Judah Maccabee and his forcesarose to defeat their Hellenistic persecutors. The underlying premise ofthis telling is the presumption of a pure Judaism struggling againstexternal influences that would pollute it. Like most stories of the fightagainst assimilation, there is a false dichotomy between Judaism and thelarger world in which the Jewish people live. The complexity and nuancethat have always defined Jewish life in every age are removed from thestory.

Ironically, Hanukkah, with its many tellings, preserves those nuances betterthan almost any other holiday in Jewish tradition. It celebrates a varietyof ways to be Jewish - ways which have changed through the generations, thechallenges, and the times. Whether in more recent history, when Jews feltdistant from their homeland and early Zionists told the story in ways thatemboldened them to return to the land, or in ancient times after thedestruction of the Temple, when God felt very far away and the Rabbis toldthe story to help bring God back, our tellings of the Hanukkah story haveinvited new interpretations, questions, and meanings, each helping ageneration of Jews rise to the challenge of its moment in history. In fact,the richness of Jewish tradition is its remarkable capacity to embody manyforms of Jewish expression. Failing to recognize this on Hanukkah would betruly absurd.

On a holiday that reminds us, among many things, of the danger of idolatry,we dare not turn Jewish identity into an idol. Anything can be an idol,including one's definition of what it means to be Jewish. Idolatry is whathappens whenever we falsely absolutize what is by definition infinite. Intelling of the fight against idolatry, we must be careful not to turn ourown tradition into an idol--presuming a static definition of what it meansto be Jewish and how to contribute to the future of the Jewish people.

While no one can say what Jewish life will look like in the future, we needto continue the oldest tradition of Hanukkah by inviting people to enter theprocess of creating that future. After 2,000 years of playing dreidel, agame of chance epitomizing the precariousness of Jewish life, we now have anunprecedented opportunity to play a new kind of game--one that reflectsthe blessings, challenges, and possibilities of this moment in AmericanJewish life.

Contrary to much in Jewish life, this is a game that everyone can play andeveryone can win. Here is how it works:

Answer these questions by telling your own story, based on your ownexperience. For each question, try to find an answer that describessomething you think of as typically Jewish, and a second that describessomething you don't think of as typically Jewish. There are no wrong orright answers.

  • Which foods or meals evoke Jewish associations for you?
  • In what places have you been where you felt particularly Jewish?
  • On what occasions did you feel very Jewish?
  • Who is a "real Jewish hero" for you? (That person doesn't have to be aJew.)
  • What makes your relationships Jewish?
  • Bonus question: Is there something important in your life that you reallywish was a part of what you usually think of as being Jewish?

    The important thing in this game is not adding up the score, but taking part in it by answering the questions and sharing your own story. If you play, you win.

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