Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Howard Jacobson's childish Chanuccah

A disappointing and shallow piece, I think, from Booker Prize winner Howard Jacobson in the NYT today. He basically doesn't see the point of everyone's favorite festival, Chanuccah:

Everyone knows the bare bones of the story. At Hanukkah we celebrate the Maccabees, also known as the Hasmoneans, who defeated the might of the Syrian-Greek army in 165 B.C., recapturing the desecrated Temple and reconsecrating it with oil that ought to have run out in a day but lasted eight. Indeed, Hanukkah means “consecration,” and when we light those candles we are remembering the re-dedication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.

But how many Jews truly feel this narrative as their own? I’m not asking for contemporary relevance. History is history: whatever happens to a people is important to them. But Hanukkah — at least the way it’s told — struggles to find a path to Jewish hearts...

The cruel truth is that Hanukkah is a seasonal festival of light in search of a pretext and as such is doomed to be forever the poor relation of Christmas. No comparable grandeur in the singing, no comparable grandeur in the giving, no comparable grandeur in the commemoration (no matter how solemn and significant the events we are remembering), in which even the candles are small and burn out pretty much the minute you light them.

The Hasmoneans, he complains, do not resonate; the Book of Maccabees "doesn't quite feel authentic"; we didn't defeat the Greeks in an interesting enough way; the chanucciah is fun but uninspiring; heck, he even moans about the songs. I know he's trying to be funny, but one rather gets the sense he doesn't like Chanuccah.

But then I do, and I suspect many others do too. For me, the basic themes of Chanuccah resonate today more than ever: the temptations and dangers of cultural assimilation; the fight for religious freedom; the desire for national independence; and, for those who know a little more about those boring Hasmoneans, the corruption of power. These are not just historical curiosities, nor is understanding their relevance to today simply an academic exercise; the story of the Maccabees speaks directly to our experience as Jews in the 21st century, perhaps more than any of the other historical festivals (indeed, it seems like only yesterday that we were discussing, on this blog, the amazing malleability of Chanuccah, and how it has a message for every age).

It's hard to understand how a man who writes so convincingly, in fiction and non-fiction, about Israel, the diaspora and Jewish identity can fail to connect to these themes - or, better still, find some original message of his own. In his piece, he calls Chanuccah "a children's festival". It does rather feel as if he is stuck in a childish Chanuccah. You would have thought the winner of the Man Booker prize, 68, would have grown out of it by now.

RELATED: Commentary and Avraham Bronstein. Tablet inexplicably thinks the piece is "a mini-masterpiece".

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