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 so long ago. While the original Chanukah 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 chassidic reggae superstar looking no different from Sting. Matisyahu’s music was amazing, and hopefully will continue to be amazing, but he used to be 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 appeared tribal, rebellious, revolutionary. But now it’s all gone and his formerly chassidic look is being portrayed as some ball and chain.
In Latin there is a saying: The name is an omen. Matisyahu’s very name comes from Chanukah and in his inner struggle to find his real self the battle of Chanukah 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 Matisyahu released the brilliant and inspiring song “Miracle” – but in the video Matisyahu is seen dancing around in a bird cage dressed in a Santa outfit.
Having religious angst is one thing, but why did Matisyahu feel the need share his shave with the world? Why did it have to go out to millions via 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 seem 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: The scandal involving a column about a student’s premarital sexual episode, ending with her “walk of shame,” published on a website run by Yeshiva University students. YU wanted the website to get rid of the column. The website stood its ground, preferring to lose its funding (which it did) rather than its voice. This too happened right before Chanukah, and is part of the classic cultural war. Today’s Jewish students struggle between the passions of physicality and the values of timeless Judaism. Even the bastion of American Jewish education, Yeshiva University, is 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 she is more aware of Christmas than Chanukah. Here 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 Chanukah 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 Chanukah happenings throughout the country under the banner ‘Nes Chanukah (Chanukah 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? If we’re going to go to the trouble of making a whole series of Chanukah happenings, shouldn’t we use this opportunity to educate about our own cultural history, to teach Jewish identity?
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 – Shwarma? 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! 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. No walk of shame, no Santa outfits, just great energy and a love of Judaism. And if Chanukah is about broadcasting the miracle, the Maccabeats’ usage of YouTube to spread the light of Chanukah and make Judaism look attractive is to be lauded.