The war is as fierce today as it ever was. It is a battle for culture and identity and it is the same war the Maccabees fought oh so long ago. While the original Hanukkah victory had a military component, the battle was certainly first and foremost a fight against cultural assimilation - and that struggle continues today.
Exhibit A: Matisyahu. I am not about to rip on one of my all time favorite musicians, but it was painful for me and many others to see our beloved Hassidic Reggae Superstar look no different then Sting. Matisyahu's music was amazing, and hopefully will continue to be amazing, but before he was so, well, outwardly Jewish, so proudly different. You just respected him so much for not caring what the world thought. In his full beard he felt tribal, rebellious, revolutionary. But now, it's all gone and now the beard-of-belonging and Hassidic look is being portrayed as some ball and chain, some iron mask to be freed of.
In Latin there is a saying: The name is an omen. Matisyahu's very name comes from Hanukkah and in his inner struggle to find his real self the battle of Hanukkah was taking place - the battle to place oneself somewhere on the spectrum between Hellenist (totally assimilated) and Zealot (no outside influence). The signs of identity-strain already showed themselves when for last year's Holiday Season, Matis released a brilliant and inspiring song “Miracle” - but in the video Matis is seen dancing around in a bird cage dressed in a Santa outfit.
You ask yourself: What is authentic Jewish music? Is it reggae? What is the authentic Jewish look? Black hat? Who inspires you more: the Lubavitcher Rebbe or Bob Marley? Are you a Giants fan or a Jewish soldier? And can these contradictions co-exist, or do we lie to ourselves to justify our comfort zones?
Having religious angst is one thing, but why did Matisyahu feel the need to share his shave with the world? Why did it have to go out to millions by Twitter? Maybe he did not want to shock his fans next time he came out on stage. Or maybe by taking a new side in the cultural battle, Matisyahu chose to be a cultural combatant once again. Matis used to make Judaism look awesome, but now he made it look like a prison. A bit sad, but I still love you Matis, and looking forward to your comeback!
Exhibit B: Yeshiva University scandal involving a column about a student's premarital sexual episode, ending with her "walk of shame." YU, an Orthodox Jewish university, wanted the paper to get rid of the column. The paper stood its ground and preferred to lose its funding.
This too happened right before Hanukkah , and is part of the classic cultural war where sexuality, which no doubt existed at YU before, feels the need to be outed, to be loud and proud - to be... Greek. Just like the wars that raged in Judea 2,000 years ago, today's Jewish students on campus struggle between the passions of physicality and the values of timeless Judaism. The bastion of American Jewish education, Yeshiva University, is indeed a battleground where the forces of Hellenism and traditionalism are locked in a competition for cultural supremacy.
Exhibit C: Absorption Ministry ads targeting Israelis living in America and calling them back to the Jewish State. In one of the ads, Israeli grandparents Skyping with their granddaughter who is living in America are shocked to learn that she is more aware of Christmas then Hanukkah . Unlike the first two exhibits where forces of cultural leniency struck against classical values, here the State of Israel struck back with an unequivocal Maccabean message: American culture is inferior to Jewish culture, so come back home before you lose your children to assimilation.
Many American Jews were outraged, feeling personally affronted at having their host culture besmirched. While Matisyahu paraded his new clean face, and the YU girl lamented her walk of shame, the State of Israel pushed an alternative to Christmas and offered Hanukkah as a remedy for the disease of assimilation.
Exhibit D: While in Exhibit C the State of Israel was the Maccabee, in Exhibit D the Jewish State took its own walk of shame: "The Ministry of Culture and Sport is sponsoring Hanukkah happenings throughout the country under the banner 'Nes Hanukkah (Hanukkah Miracle)'. In order to make more cultural options available to all, a new initiative is being undertaken to make 100 plays in more than 100 locations free for children. The plays will include Pippi Longstocking, Pinocchio, Aladdin, and more."
Excuse me? What were those plays again? Did you say Pippi Longstocking? Was she from the house of Chashmonai? If we're going to go to the trouble of making a whole series of Hanukkah happenings, shouldn't we use this opportunity to educate about our own cultural history, to teach Jewish identity?
My daughter loves Fiddler on the Roof - why not put that on? My favorite all-time movie is “Masada” with Peter O'Toole; why not make that into a play? Can't we promote our own stories, our own heroes? Or are we too afraid of those cultural icons of the past because their story is too demanding for us? Those Maccabees were pretty serious folks, they sought purity and Temple offerings, and I guess not everyone in the Israeli elite is interested in inculcating Maccabee ideology...
And speaking of Masada, my friend Yehuda HaKohen pointed out that a McDonald's is opening up at the famous desert palace/fortress. McDonald's, not exactly a traditional Jewish food establishment, is rather the height of modern American soft-power cultural imperialism. Putting a McDonald's at Masada offends the memory of the Zealot fighters who fled the Roman occupation army in search of cultural and religious independence. So why not put a nice Israeli restaurant there instead, something that feels authentically Jewish? But then again, what is authentic Jewish food - Shawarma? Gefilte fish? Jachnoon? Petcha? We're still figuring that one out.
Finally, Exhibit E in the battle for Jewish identity: Who else but the Maccabeats! They make me "believe in miracles"! These young men make fun music, but as their name suggests, they are cultural warriors. They took Matisyahu's song "Miracle", sang it a cappella style, and added to it a video that warms the Jewish heart, giving us Nachas. No walk of shame, no Santa outfits, just great energy and a love of Judaism. And if Hanukkah is about broadcasting the miracle, Pirsumei Nisa, then the Maccabeats usage of YouTube to spread the light of Hanukkah and make Judaism look attractive is to be lauded. Thanks boys, you give me back my faith in the victory of true Jewish culture over the forces of assimilation. Keep it up!
For Jews, assimilating out is easy - but the real challenge is to assimilate in, to process the 3,500 years of Jewish history, knowledge, and texts, and to somehow find a way to be modern, creative, and free, yet still in line with Jewish tradition. Being proudly Jewish and cleaving to our authentic spirit is real beauty. Never surrender.