With the celebration of Thanksgiving still fresh in our memories, and quite possibly our waistlines, and Chanukah a little more than a week away, we might recall last year’s rare, indeed almost impossible confluence of the two holidays.
Remember how the event was met with a bit of bemusement, resulting in the neologism Thanksgivukkah, in images of turkeys with tails that turned into Chanukah menorahs, and meals that combined stuffing and cranberry sauce with latkes and sufganiyot?
At first glance, it might be tempting to say that this year Chanukah has been restored to its rightful place in the secular calendar, ending as it does on Christmas Eve. But Christmas is one of the two most important holidays on the Christian calendar and, in all honesty, our minor holiday does not work all that well as the Jewish alternative to Christmas. As much as Chanukah is our Festival of Lights, it pales in comparison with the religious celebration of the birth of the Christian savior through divine incarnation. Neither can we offer an equivalent to the iconography of Christmas trees, sleighs, stockings, and jolly old Saint Nicholas, better known as Santa Claus.
And can we really take pride in the fact that Chanukah has been incorporated into the secular “Holiday Season,” which has become an enormous celebration of materialism and an orgy of consumption, beginning with Black Friday, now pushed back into Thanksgiving itself, followed by Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday? Or that the one favorable comparison that we can make is that we get seven nights of presents instead of just one?
Don’t get me wrong. I love Chanukah, and I fully recognize and understand the challenges that we face in growing up Jewish and raising our children as Jews in America. I bring up the problematic nature of Chanukah’s association with Christmas simply to underline the fact that last year, more than a few people commented that Chanukah actually fits better with Thanksgiving. After all, Thanksgiving is a harvest holiday and Chanukah originated as a delayed celebration of the Jewish harvest festival of Sukkot. Thanksgiving incorporates a modest amount of nonsectarian spirituality and Chanukah is at best a minor religious holiday; both are occasions for families to gather at home, rather than in a house of worship.
Thanksgiving is a distinctly American holiday, a ritual of national unity, albeit muted in contrast to the Fourth of July. Chanukah is a celebration of a successful national revolt against the Seleucid Empire, a small celebration of freedom in contrast to the Passover commemoration of the Exodus. Indeed, insofar as it began as the celebration of a military victory, Chanukah might well be compared to the Mexican holiday Cinco de Mayo. Although many non-Mexicans mistake Cinco de Mayo for Mexico’s Independence Day, which falls on the September 15, the Fifth of May merely commemorates the Mexican victory over the invading French army of Napoleon III in the Battle of Puebla in 1862. (By 1864, however, the Mexicans had lost the war, and Emperor Maximilian I was installed as their monarch. He ruled until 1867, when the Mexicans, aided by the United States, ousted the French.)
Even more than Cinco de Mayo, Thanksgiving and Chanukah have been somewhat tainted by subsequent events. Thanksgiving presents us with the ideal of co-existence between the English colonists and the Native Americans they encountered, but that ideal has proved to be elusive in practice. Chanukah’s rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem and independence in ancient Judea was associated with civil war among our people, and the theocratic rule of the Hasmonean dynasty.
What is most important, however, is that both Thanksgiving and Chanukah are celebrations of survival against overwhelming odds. Both represent a message of hope that is always welcome.
Abraham Lincoln established Thanksgiving as a national holiday in 1863, in the midst of the Civil War. That same Civil War inspired a 14-year-old Jewish girl to start writing poetry. That was Emma Lazarus, a native New Yorker and a true American. Her father was Sephardic, her mother Ashkenazic of German descent, with ancestry in New York on both sides of her family, dating back to the American Revolution. Lazarus grew up to become one of the great American poets of the 19th century, maintaining a literary friendship with Ralph Waldo Emerson. She died in 1887, at age 38.
She composed her best known work, “The New Colossus,” in 1883. It was not until well after her death that the poem was engraved in bronze and mounted on the State of Liberty’s pedestal. Most of us are familiar with the final fives lines of the poem, but the sonnet is worth repeating in its entirety:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Although she was particularly concerned with the treatment of Jewish immigrants flooding in from Russia and eastern Europe during the late 19th century, Lazarus was able to universalize that experience to cover the immigration in general, and to emphasize the establishment of the United States as a refuge for freedom and a nation of immigrants, truly a cause for thanksgiving. We might note the subtle incorporation of Jewish motifs in this poem, notably the reference to immigrants as exiles, the use of the torch and the lamp, perhaps the similarity between the “mighty woman” and the biblical judge, Deborah, and certainly the comparison with the Greek Colossus of Rhodes, an implied contrast between the Hellenic and the Hebraic (which also is a main source of conflict associated with Chanukah).
Around the same time that she wrote “The New Colossus,” Lazarus also wrote another poem, “1492,” that has a similar but more overtly Jewish theme. “1492” contrasts the tragedy of the expulsion from Spain with the hope spawned by the discovery of the New World as a home for the exiled:
Thou two-faced year, Mother of Change and Fate,
Didst weep when Spain cast forth with flaming sword,
The children of the prophets of the Lord,
Prince, priest, and people, spurned by zealot hate.
Hounded from sea to sea, from state to state,
The West refused them, and the East abhorred.
No anchorage the known world could afford,
Close-locked was every port, barred every gate.
Then smiling, thou unveil’dst, O two-faced year,
A virgin world where doors of sunset part,
Saying, “Ho, all who weary, enter here!
There falls each ancient barrier that the art
Of race or creed or rank devised, to rear
Grim bulwarked hatred between heart and heart!”
Without a doubt a major American poet, Lazarus dealt with many overtly Jewish subjects in her work. She translated works by the early 19th-century German poet Heinrich Heine and the Hebrew poets of medieval Spain, Moses ben Ezra, Solomon ben Judah Gabirol, and Judah ben Ha-Levi, into English. Although she did not live to see the formal birth of the Zionist movement at the end of the 19th century, her writing expresses the longing for a Jewish homeland associated with Theodor Herzl. As much as the United States had opened its golden door to the Jewish people, Lazarus was well aware of the anti-Semitism that existed in American society, and the plight of the Jewish people elsewhere throughout the world.
In that context, her poem “The Feast of Lights” conveys to us a different, more militant meaning of Chanukah than we are accustomed to:
Kindle the taper like the steadfast star
Ablaze on evening’s forehead o’er the earth,
And add each night a lustre till afar
An eightfold splendor shine above thy hearth.
Clash, Israel, the cymbals, touch the lyre,
Blow the brass trumpet and the harsh-tongued horn;
Chant psalms of victory till the heart takes fire,
The Maccabean spirit leap new-born.
Remember how from wintry dawn till night,
Such songs were sung in Zion, when again
On the high altar flamed the sacred light,
And, purified from every Syrian stain,
The foam-white walls with golden shields were hung,
With crowns and silken spoils, and at the shrine,
Stood, midst their conqueror-tribe, five chieftains sprung
From one heroic stock, one seed divine.
Five branches grown from Mattathias’ stem,
The Blessed John, the Keen-Eyed Jonathan,
Simon the fair, the Burst-of Spring, the Gem,
Eleazar, Help of-God; o’er all his clan
Judas the Lion-Prince, the Avenging Rod,
Towered in warrior-beauty, uncrowned king,
Armed with the breastplate and the sword of God,
Whose praise is: “He received the perishing.”
They who had camped within the mountain-pass,
Couched on the rock, and tented neath the sky,
Who saw from Mizpah’s heights the tangled grass
Choke the wide Temple-courts, the altar lie
Disfigured and polluted-who had flung
Their faces on the stones, and mourned aloud
And rent their garments, wailing with one tongue,
Crushed as a wind-swept bed of reeds is bowed,
Even they by one voice fired, one heart of flame,
Though broken reeds, had risen, and were men,
They rushed upon the spoiler and o’ercame,
Each arm for freedom had the strength of ten.
Now is their mourning into dancing turned,
Their sackcloth doffed for garments of delight,
Week-long the festive torches shall be burned,
Music and revelry wed day with night.
Still ours the dance, the feast, the glorious Psalm,
The mystic lights of emblem, and the Word.
Where is our Judas? Where our five-branched palm?
Where are the lion-warriors of the Lord?
Clash, Israel, the cymbals, touch the lyre,
Sound the brass trumpet and the harsh-tongued horn,
Chant hymns of victory till the heart take fire,
The Maccabean spirit leap new-born!
Lazarus issued a similar call for renewal and rebirth inspired by the Chanukah commemoration in another poem, “The Banner of the Jew.”
With the State of Israel now 66 years old, it is easy to forget the longing for a homeland that the Jewish people felt before Israel’s Declaration of Independence was adopted in 1948. Chanukah, then, might be an occasion to consider what Israel’s independence means to us, especially in this troubled moment in our history, and at the same time as we, as American Jews, give thanks for the safe harbor we have enjoyed here in the United States.
In doing so, we can recall the meaning of Chanukah as a Festival of Light, and a celebration of survival – and hope.