A Weekly Message from Rabbi Sam Levine 12.10.2020

Chanukah is here! A little light, a little joy for our otherwise blackened moods. Just in time!  I am happy and grateful: my family will be all together, I will eat latkes despite my calorie-counting campaign, I will spin dreidels. I most likely will not eat any sufganiyot (jelly donuts – let’s not get carried away – but you go ahead…). Chanukah is just fun – no weight, no gravity – it’s just what it should be.

Which brings me to item #1: our Chanukah event on Saturday night. Our Shabbat mincha service, followed by ma’ariv, begins at 4:20 pm. We will recite Havdalah at the end of that service, around 5:15 (tune in around 5:10 to be safe), and then we will begin what we hope will be a fun Zoom Chanukah program (including candle-lighting) that will go for about an hour.  Feel free to put your computer on in the kitchen while you make latkes, sing along with Chanukah songs, etc. Even if we can’t be together, we can still have some fun, no? 

A Chanukah care package went out to the membership this week. Huge thanks go to Audrey and the team of delivery people she assembled to make it happen. There was a Chanukah song-sheet in the bag that hopefully you still have – we’ll be using it on Saturday evening. If you don’t have a copy of the song sheet, reach out to roomj@emjc.org and Audrey will send you one.

We will be lighting Chanukah candles every night at the conclusion of the evening service (which takes place from 6:45-7:00), so please Zoom in for that too if you’d like a little company. The only exception to that is, of course, Friday night, when we light Chanukah candles before lighting Shabbat candles (candle-lighting at 4:10 this week). AND: Yoni Avital will be Zoom-leading Kabbalat Shabbat tomorrow night, Camp Ramah-style, all the way from the Netherlands, so join us at 4:30

Are you looking for something fun for families on Sunday morning? Join in the RoomJ Chanukah party – Sunday 9:30-11:15: A Rugrats Chanukah, art project, storytelling – should be great fun! Contact roomj@emjc.org for details.

Det. Steve Litwin brought EMJC a little Chanukah cheer this year. Two of the bulbs on the EMJC chanukiyah (face the building and look up!!) were burnt out (not enough filament for eight nights – what will we do??) so he and an FDNY buddy braved the ledge, replaced the bulbs, and now we’ll have all eight “candles” burning brightly. They don’t call it “temple” for nothing…

This past Tuesday night, we had our first Israel Today program with Tomer Gekler. Tomer led us through a great discussion about current events in Israel, but from a different angle – he covered the things that most of us don’t hear about, presenting some challenging stories and issues. There was some fun too – he brought us an article about the latest Israeli break-through: the country that has given us world-changing innovations in science, medicine, technology, and agriculture has invented (drum roll please…) has invented… the sufganiyah popsicle! For real! A frozen jelly-donut on a stick. And we all breathe a sigh of relief. Negotiations for a cultural exchange (they send us those, we send back deep-fried twinkies) are underway.

I’d also like to announce an exciting theatrical opportunity. RoomJ parent Daniella Topol is the artistic director of Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre. Her latest project is called The Gett: A Young Wife’s Tale. The Gett is a Jewish myth about divorce and how we salvage and recover meaning through profound loss and ancient ritual. This performance, a live reading, is directed by Daniella and features four-time TONY nominee Tovah Feldshuh, Peter Mark Kendall, Alfredo Narciso, and Miriam Silverman. The performance is free, but check it out right away, because it’s only running until the 12th. Here’s the website for more information and to get (free) tickets:


Please support Daniella’s great work and please generously support the theatre (and arts) world in general – they are really struggling through the pandemic.

Lastly, I would like to announce that I am holding “virtual office hours” on Mondays from 9-11 and Thursdays from 11:45-12:45. If you have a matter you’d like to discuss, please know that I am broadly available; but those hours are specifically designated, so please feel free to reach out to me.

Finally, a quick word about Chanukah:

Chanukah is a fun festival. In the scheme of Jewish holidays, it is, of course, considered a minor one. It is not mentioned in the Bible, it has no Talmudic tractate associated with it, and it enjoys only minor liturgical attentions. But of course, due to its proximity to Christmas and the influence of Christianity on Western culture, Chanukah has taken on many of the trappings of Christian and secular “Christmas culture.” Which is all well and fine, I suppose. The external trappings notwithstanding, it’s still a great story.

The origins of Chanukah, though,  are more complex than they are generally understood to be. Michael Satlow, a professor of Jewish studies at Brown University and a specialist in the Second Temple period, sums up our understanding of Chanukah as follows:

The evil Greeks sought to impose a new culture and set of values, Hellenism, on their Jewish subjects. Some bad Jews gladly excepted Hellenism, throwing out their Judaism and assimilating into Greek culture. A few of the really, really bad Jews went further than this, and sought to help the Greeks destroy Judaism. But a few Jews, a loyal remnant led by Judah Maccabee, his father, and his brothers, rose up in defense of Judaism. They recaptured the defiled temple from the evil Greeks, and with God’s miraculous help, when a day’s worth of oil lasted for eight days, re-purified the temple and made all well again.

This is the story we grew up with. Dr. Satlow goes on to say that this story is largely fiction: it is stitched together from various accounts of Chanukah that span hundreds of years, and which were then refracted through different lenses as fit contemporaneous needs. For the rabbis of the Talmud, it was about a need to legitimate the Hasmonean claims to the throne. For modern Jewry, a story of Jews fighting against assimilation fit the bill. For Zionists, it became a story of a small band of Jews rebelling against a mighty power and emerging victorious and politically independent. But history tells a different story, and a study of the first and second Books of the Maccabees reveals a story that, as Satlow says, “paints a rather different picture of the Maccabean revolt, one that understands its causes to be the result of petty jealousies, family feuds, and some stunningly bad luck.” In other words, the story is not necessarily what it seems. 

At the end of the day, religion is based on mythologies; that’s not to say that the myths are untrue, or that they don’t have a connection to the truth. But in reality, at least from a religious perspective, their historical veracity is irrelevant. We are the inheritors of the myth. The myth is what has shaped us, what has given us our values, what has defined us as a people. And knowing what I know of Satlow’s work, I’m guessing he would say our “values” and our “peoplehood” are constantly changing and shifting. The chalutzic (Zionist pioneer) interpretation of Chanukah is a great example. The Zionist appropriation of the story has informed the Jewish view of Chanukah for only about a century, a drop in the bucket of Jewish time. In the early Zionist mind, Chanukah was about the brave, sword-wielding Judah Maccabee, the political rebel, the great conqueror. This was certainly not the message of the rabbis of the Talmud, nor was their charming oil-lasted-for-eight-days fable any closer to the historical “truth” of Chanukah and the Maccabean revolt.

I believe that delving into the complexity of things makes the things much more interesting. Chanukah is no exception. A deep dive on Chanukah enriches our understanding of the period, of the players, and of the impact. I recommend Satlow’s podcast series, From Israelite to Jew. It’s a little dry, but dense with information. Episode 11 is about the Maccabean revolt and the origins of the Chanukah story. It’s in the iTunes store if you’re interested.

In the meantime, we’ll light our candles and eat our latkes and sufganiyot, commemorating the rabbinic miracle; we’ll proudly sing songs like Mi Yemalel (Who can speak of the brave deeds of Israel? Who can even count them? In every generation a hero will arise, the redeemer of the people), commemorating the heroic Maccabees and Jewish Exceptionalism; and our children will act in school plays, wielding swords against the evil Greek Hellenizers, maintaining their Jewish identity against a mighty assimilating force.

And we’ll enjoy every moment of it.

Chag Urim Same’ach – have a joyous Festival of Lights, and please accept my wishes for a Shabbat shalom um’vorach – a peaceful and blessed Shabbat.

Rabbi Sam Levine