The New York Times grinch that stole Hanukkah

The NYT went from Hanukkah in the eyes of a clueless assimilated Jew two years ago to the holiday in the eyes of a non-Jew this year.Op-ed.

Howard Rotberg ,

New York Times masthead
New York Times masthead

A couple of years ago, for Hanukkah, the New York Times, no friend of the Jewish people and our homeland, Israel, even though many of its readers are leftist Jews, chose to run an opinion piece by a self-confessed “mostly assimilated Jew” named Michael Lukas entitled “The Hypocrisy of Hanukkah”

To Michael Lukas, Hanukkah, in essence, is an eight-night-long celebration of religious fundamentalism and violence. To non-Jewish Sarah Prager, it has no meaning at all...Her words should interest the many Jewish males who have married non-Jewish females.
You can read the essay here.

Lukas doesn’t seem to understand that the miracle of the oil is a miracle about the continued existence of Judaism in the face of Syrian-Greek and then Roman conquest, facilitated by assimilated “Hellenist” Jews. Instead he writes, “The only trouble is the actual holiday. Not the latkes and the dreidels, but the story of Hanukkah, which at its heart is an eight-night-long celebration of religious fundamentalism and violence.”

The New York Times crowd know that alleging “religious fundamentalism” is an easy way to levy insults.

Why, when the violence on the Jewish side was an attempt to stop the Assyrian-Greek destruction of Judaism and its Temple, under Syrian King Antiochus, does Lukas blame the Jews for the “violence”? It reminds me of the anti-Semites who blindly blame the Jews of Israel for fighting back against Islamist terrorism and wars meant to obliterate the Jewish homeland.

Lukas contends: “For most of the past 2000 years, Hanukkah was an afterthought on the Jewish calendar, a wintertime festival of lights during which people spun tops and ate greasy food to commemorate what has to be one of God’s least impressive miracles — a small container of oil lasted for eight nights!”

So the “mostly assimilated” Jew lectures the rest of us that this important holiday, although it is a “historical” and rabbinic holiday like Purim, rather than a Torah-source holiday like Passover, Sukkot or Yom Kippur, is just an “afterthought” and that the miracle of Jewish survival is not “impressive”.

Lukas says he has done some reading and talked to some Rabbis and that he has learned that “the story of Hanukkah is based on a historical conflict between the Maccabees and the Assyrian Greeks together with Hellenized Jews, the former being religious zealots who lived in the hills of Judea and practiced an ancient form of guerrilla warfare, with the Hellenized Jews being mostly city-dwelling assimilationists who ate pork, didn’t circumcise their male children and made the occasional sacrificial offering to pagan gods."

He is, of course, imposing his anti-fundamentalism world-view on the real story of Hanukkah, which is the rededication of the Temple and the miraculous victory of the small forces of Macabbees who ensured the survival of the Jewish people and our values against larger Syrian forces and the loss of power by the “Hellenists”. In fact, had Lukas done more reading he would have learned that some among the Hellenists actually conspired with the Syrians and assured the Syrians that the Hellenists would help the Syrians to marginalize these fundamentalists, among whom were the heroic Judah and the Maccabees who stood for the continuation of the Jewish religion, not its submission to Greek values which included idol worship.

Lukas says that “everyone agrees that the Maccabees won out in the end and imposed their version of Judaism on the formerly Hellenized Jews. So Hanukkah, in essence, commemorates the triumph of fundamentalism over cosmopolitanism. Our assimilationist answer to Christmas is really a holiday about subjugating assimilated Jews.”

Wrong, wrong, wrong. Lukas can believe whatever he wants and he can pad his C.V. by getting this horrible stuff published in the supposedly great New York Times. We can anticipate that their columnists will take his story about subjugation of assimilated Jews and make it into a story about how great Jewish assimilationist Americans are, especially when they can use the New York Times, JStreet and the Arabs to stick it to Zionist Jews, inside or outside Israel.

Hanukkah to traditional Jews means something that Lukas and the New York Times do not want to hear. Jews will continue our covenant with God to bring our ethic of freedom, responsibility, liberty and justice to the world, and many of them will adhere to the Torah's laws on one level or another, whether or not it impresses the New York Times, its leftist assimilated Jews, or its proponents of submission to the Islamists.

In the same vein, I recently read a story about famous Hollywood director, Steven Spielberg. Spielberg is one of the (all non-observant) American Jews interviewed for Abigail Pogrebin’s depressing book, Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish (Broadway Books). In it he says of his family, that celebrates both Hanukkah and Christmas: “We do Christmas because it was a tradition in (wife) Kate’s family and because it’s the one holiday I wished I could have partaken in every year I was growing up.”

Now, in a secular culture such as we now have in the West, it might not, at first glance, seem that odd for an American Jew to want to give his family some participation in what has become seen as a secular winter holiday. However, any celebration of Christmas, (which of course celebrates the birth of Jesus) in fact, negates, and is wholly incompatible with, a celebration of Hanukkah.

Does Spielberg know how Hanukkah negates Christmas trees for Jews? Does he understand that the Assyrians, in fact Greeks, were attempting to force the ideology of Hellenism on the Jews? Does he know that Hellenism was a Greek movement of pagan freedoms, idolatry, and celebration of physical culture centred at the Gymnasium, with its naked athletics and its particular form of poetry and literature?

Hanukkah, in particular, commemorates a miracle that happened after the Jews had defeated the Assyrian attempt under Antiochus Epiphanes to force them out of monotheism and ethical teachings of Judaism and into Hellenism. The Temple lamp, which was to be lit at all times, only had a small amount of oil left after the Assyrian pillaging of the Temple, but, miraculously the oil lasted for a full eight days, by which time the Jews had the opportunity to get more oil. And so Hanukkah is celebrated by the lighting of candles for eight days.

Yet all serious Jews know that what is being celebrated at Hanukkah is not only the miracle of the oil, and what it symbollizes, but the victory by our ancestral religionists to assert Jewish morality and monotheism over its pagan challenger. No serious Jew can celebrate Christmas, with its theme that the Jewish covenant with God has been superceded by the life and death of Jesus, and at the same time celebrate the continued existence of Judaism over external threats, in part physical, but more importantly cultural and religious.

That joint celebration in the Spielberg household would be enough to disentitle Spielberg to set himself up as some kind of Jewish moralist. But a close reading of the history of the interaction between the Jews and the Hellenists shows us something far more frightening about the role Spielberg and Lukas have chosen for themselves.

You see, history shows that Antiochus, now known for his attempted eradication of the Jews, originally had good relations with the Jews. These good relations stemmed from Jewish assistance when he took Jerusalem from his rival, Ptolemy, the Egyptian. A reading of the work of the historian Josephus Flavius indicates that Antiochus despite his wish to spread Hellenism, at first decreed that the Temple of Jerusalem continue to be respected as a Jewish institution under Jewish auspices.

Are Jews like Lukas and Spielberg (together with his anti-Israel screenwriter Tony Kushner from the horrible revisionist movie, Munich) and the multitude of anti-Israel academics, and Times columnists such as Tom Friedman, Roger Cohen and Michele Goldberg, modern day mityavnim?
What happened to change Antiochus’ mind about the Jews? During his rule, the number of Jews who embraced Hellenistic views and practices began to increase. These Jews, known as mityavnim, not only sought to popularize Hellenism among the Jews, but some actually are believed to have communicated with Antiochus to say that the mityavnim were ready to abandon Jewish law and culture in favour of Greek Hellenism. In fact, one of them, named Menelaus, asked for, and received, the emperor’s consent for building a stadium in Jerusalem, rather than outside it, anathema to those who visited the Holy City..

Therefore, as Larry Domnitch and others have argued, it is plausible that Antiochus changed his mind about the Jews, based on what he heard from the mityavnim. Perceiving the Jews to be divided, and possessing a substantial Hellenistic minority, he may well have made the assessment (wrongly, it turns out) that the Jew’s resolve and tenacity could be broken. If some of the Jews were adopting Hellenism, why wouldn’t the rest?

And so the question must be asked: Are Jews like Lukas and Spielberg (together with his anti-Israel screenwriter Tony Kushner from the horrible revisionist movie, Munich) and the multitude of anti-Israel academics, and Times columnists such as Tom Friedman, Roger Cohen and Michele Goldberg, modern day mityavnim?

As Israel struggles against the genocidal wishes of Iran, and the suicide bombings of Hamas, Islamlic Jihad, and others, and as most Jews around the world strive to give moral support to an embattled people, what is the effect of those who stress, not the morality of the Torah and Jewish notions of Justice, but instead the vengefulness, and unjust nature of Jewish and Israeli actions?

What if these writers, directors and academics turned their talents towards impressing the world that the Jews have one tiny state in the Middle East and the Arabs have huge tracts of land? What if they would demand from the Arabs and their leftist proponents on university campuses everywhere support for the Trump plan and peaceful negotiations with acceptance of the Jewish homeland in their midst?

This year, the Times chose an even more bizarre and disappointing article for Hanukkah. Instead of choosing an assimilated Jew to explain why he is not that keen on Hanukkah, this year we get a goodbye forever to Hanukkah by a woman whose mother is Catholic and her father is a non-practicing Jew, whose only connection to Judaism was having his children light Hanukkah candles when they were young. “Saying Goodbye to Hanukkah” by Sarah Prager is some kind of explanation why a woman raised with no religion (she was taken a few times to a Unitarian service that pretended to observe all religions’ holidays) feels that she had to say “goodbye” to Hanukkah.

The article can be read here.

As a child her family had both the Jewish menorah and candles and the Christian Christmas tree. However these were empty symbols of a secularized observance of nothing in particular. Ms. Prager, who is a writer of lesbian literature, says that when she and her female partner became parents of a baby “we realized that going to any house of worship and following a religion just for our children to feel a connection to something wouldn’t be authentic. We couldn’t teach them to believe in anything we didn’t believe in ourselves."

“So our two daughters will celebrate Christmas and Easter because that’s what my extended family does” Ms. Prager does have family in Israel and notes that this religious part of her family in Jerusalem “finds comfort in knowing exactly what to do at every time of year, every life event and every Friday night. Editing how or when to light their candles never crosses their minds.”

For Ms. Prager and her partner the closest thing to a religious experience is marching in the Pride Parade for the LGBTQ folks.

Ms. Prager knows enough to realize that the death of her paternal grandparents has severed any last remaining tie to or knowledge of Judaism. Her words should be of interest to the many Jewish males in America who have married non-Jewish females: “I respect the incredible value of keeping traditions alive, especially those that centuries of persecution have sought to erase. But while I have more of a connection to Judaism than some, I am not Jewish and it doesn’t feel authentic to celebrate a Jewish holiday religiously.” One wonders what her grandparents and great grandparents would be thinking of all of this.

So the New York Times two years ago discussed Hanukkah through the eyes of an assimilated Jew who finds ways to criticize the holiday thhat he does not understand. The next step is viewing Hanukkah through a non-Jew. Both are hostile acts to Jews who understand the importance of Hanukkah as a statement against assimilation. Sarah Prager is no Dennis Prager, the conservative radio talk show host and Orthodox Jew.

My suggestion to the New York Times is that next year, it asks Dennis Prager, or other intellectual with knowledge and understanding of Judaism and its culture to write about the real message of Hanukkah.

Otherwise, I view the Times anti-Israel bias together with its sad coverage of Hanukkah, to be part of a war against both the State of Israel and Judaism.

Howard Rotberg is a retired lawyer and the author of four books on ideologies and values: The Second Catastrophe: A Novel about a Book and its Author; Exploring Vancouverism: The Political Culture of Canada’s Lotus Land; Tolerism: The Ideology Revealed; and The Ideological Path to Submission... and what we can do about it. He writes also for various magazines such as Frontpage Magazine, New English Review, and Israel National News. He is the president of Canada’s sole conservative values and pro-Israel publishing house, Mantua Books, and lives in Hamilton, Ontario Canada.