Here I am again this year, wondering which Hanukkah my family and I will have:
A glorious week of heavy latkes and sour cream, Hanukkah gelt and penny-gambling with a dreidel on the floor, amid the litter of torn wrapping and crumpled foil wrappers?

A pseudo-Christmas, decked in blue and silver, with eight days of presents and parties, eight days spent explaining again why we don't have a tree or stockings, eight days of holding up our little candles against the season's dazzling, domineering lights?

A rousing Festival of Lights, the way it's taught to us at synagogue, with its miracles and fierce faith and lovable underdogs, the handsome fighting Maccabee boys?

Or a military holiday that reproaches itself-after so many years, so little has changed-so many Jews out of harmony with non-Jews over so much of the world, and with one another too, a tradition that also goes back to when Mattathias Maccabeus cut down an idol-worshipping fellow Hebrew and started the whole damn Maccabean revolt.

After the latkes and brisket, after the presents and chocolate, what values should I kindle in my children's minds, to accompany their memories of love and light?

I begin at the beginning. The framework of Jewish rituals, and most human celebrations, rests on three basic elements: light, bread, and beverage.

Every Jewish holiday combines these differently. Shabbat, as the fulcrum of Jewish observance, makes these three elements central. Festivals like Hanukkah are more complex because they sprang from village observances and ancient celebrations of folk heroes. These were folded into religious liturgy by rabbis of the "if you can't beat `em, join `em" variety. (Another example of such a festival is Purim, whose characters and traditions stretch far back into pre-Judaic folk practices).

So, small wonder that the central symbol of Hanukkah is the oldest of the "big three," and the most primal link between ourselves and G-d: light.

And small wonder that it is a winter holiday, intended like others of its season to get us through the darkest, shortest, coldest days of the year with fragrant cooking fires and heavenly lights.

Traditions of light
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  • Winter holidays inspire a special kind of togetherness, a huddling and protectiveness among kin. Maybe that is how this winter feast was tied to the fight of the Maccabee family, alone in the mountains raining terror as best they could on the dominant Greeks below. It's said that the Maccabees were basically terrorists, and certainly they were guerrillas. The fury of winter and the fury of man are a tough combination, unbeatably grim.

    Even as a child, before I fully understood war, the Maccabee story at Hanukkah made me uneasy. Now that I am older, and have studied the apocryphal texts of the Maccabees, including the second book, I wonder about any movement whose heart is religious "cleansing," and whose tactics involve stealth, ambush, and butchery. I haven't worked out how to teach this side of Hanukkah. The closest I have come is to teach togetherness across traditions, similarities along with differences. And to base it all on the miracle of light.

    It'd be fun, for starters, to tie Hanukkah into the Jewish lunar calendar and its close kin, the ancient lunar calendars of other cultures. Hanukkah falls in Kislev, the same Jewish month as another great miracle of light: when Noah saw the first rainbow after the flood, a sign of G-d's renewed covenant with humans. What about making prisms for the windows this year, welcoming nature's light to complement the candles we bring outside each evening?