Thursday, December 9, 2010

Chanukah Day 8: Guest Post by Esther Friesner

Posted by Simcha 12:22 PM, under | 4 comments

Sadly, Chanukah is coming to an end and it will soon be time to pack up the dreidals, menorahs, colored candles and all of the many Chanukah school projects, until Chanukah rolls around again next year.

I've had a wonderful time celebrating Chanukah here, at SFF Chat, with all of the authors who took the time to participate with an article or interview and with all of you who stopped by to read the posts and share your thoughts and opinions.

But it's not over yet because I still have one more fantastic blog post to present you with, by the one and only Esther Friesner....


Chanukah is upon us again, and color me happy. It’s always been one of my favorite holidays. For a change, this year it does not fall close to December 25, which really gives the lights of the chanukiah a chance to shine out for what they really are—not just a defense against the overwhelming media presence of Christmas.

In case you didn’t already know—which I doubt—this is a holiday about independence, about being who and what you truly are. Fantasy is full of characters who discover their true, heroic nature, even when everyone else thinks of them as negligible underdogs. The Maccabees would have understood this perfectly. They took on a huge empire and won. Not bad when the “smart” money was on the Syrian Greeks. After all, they were richer, better armed, and they had elephants. Elephants! War-elephants are a pretty tough card to trump, and not just because of the trampling and the trunk-swatting and the carrying of armed warriors around. I still recall—with a fine combination of horror and the inappropriate giggles—reading the Megillah Antiochus (which is the text containing the story of Chanukah) and learning about the tragic death of one of the Maccabees who was a victim of, er, being engulfed by pachydermal post-user digestive byproduct.

As impressive as taking on the Syrian Greeks was the fact that the Maccabees also took on one of the world’s first attempts at compulsory cultural assimilation. There were all manner of alluring temptations presented to the people of Israel to abandon their own ways and come over to the Hellenistic side of the Force. (“We have cookies!) And when temptations failed, the mask dropped and there was flat-out coercion. (“You will like our cookies.”) And extreme measures. (“You will like our cookies because we have just made your cookies illegal.”) And threats. (“You will like our cookies even if we have to shove them down your throat.”) And executions. (“Well whaddaya know? He choked on our cookies. Serves him right. Next?”)

Assimilation—particularly attractive assimilation—is still with us. No one wants to feel like the Outsider. The urge to be part of the group might be a holdover from our proto-hominid ancestors when not being one of the Popular Kids meant you were going to end up as leopard chow. There was more than strength in numbers; there was survival.

Even now that we’re (supposedly) civilized, it can be deadly being Different. There are worse things than leopards lurking in the darkness, waiting to destroy those who don’t belong to the group, and they’re subtler about getting their claws into us. It can start with a “joke” about what makes us different—our looks, our minds, our affections, our beliefs, our cultures. The “jokes” aren’t very funny, and they get even less funny as they go on.

It looks a lot easier to stop being the bullies’ victim not by fighting back but by going over to the bullies’ side and becoming one of them. Mmmm, cookies. . .Not the most palatable cookies, but hey! All the cool kids are eating them.

Now make no mistake, I am not completely opposed to assimilation. In its milder, more tolerant form, it can be a positive force. My most recent book, Threads and Flames (Viking/Penguin) is about Raisa, a young Jewish girl from a Polish shtetl who is caught up in the horror of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in 1911. Before the tragedy that shakes her world, she has to deal with adjusting to life in a new country, a process of assimilation that includes good things such as becoming literate, having the opportunity to improve her life through education, being able to get a better job, and finding the resources to make other people’s lives better, too. Yet even as she becomes more American, she holds onto her identity as a Jew. She is able to choose which parts of her life will be changed to be more like everyone else and which will remain different, individual, and special to her and her roots. She is able to work toward a time when Americans will be able to enjoy even more choices.

So a very happy Chanukah/Hanukah/Hanukka to all (with your choice of spelling). Rejoice in choice, be yourself, celebrate freedom, cheer on your favorite underdog.

And have a cookie.

© 2010, Esther M. Friesner

And because I have been looking for an excuse to post this video, I'm going to throw it in over here since it does tie in nicely to Esther's post, giving a lighthearted explanation of the story behind Chanukah.


I do like videos :)

Shtetl...? Must go google, I always do

I never had Chanukah explained in such a way - thanks! And I will have cookie now :)

Loved the video, it explained Chanukah in a way even my 7 year old could understand (he was watching it as well). Thank you for sharing.

I love this video and have used it to explain Hanukkah to several non-Jewish friends.

I also really enjoyed Esther's post and think her remark about it being easier to join the bullies than risk being the object of their derision hit the nail on the head.

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