Comments for Chanukah Choral Shabbat
December 9, 2016
Shabbat shalom and welcome to our Chanukah Choral Shabbat service. Our wonderful cantor and magnificent choir will sing five Chanukah songs for us, each from a different era and venue of Jewish history. Before I briefly comment on each piece, allow me to share with you some thoughts about Chanukah.
Chanukah, which begins on December 24 this year, is our only historically based festival, reflecting the real events that occurred in Israel from 167-164 BCE when the Maccabees, a guerilla army of Traditionalist Jews, engaged in a civil war against fellow Jews and then a war for religious and political freedom against the Syrian Greeks or as they were better known, the Seleucid dynasty.
Alexander the Great began the conquest of Persia in 336 BCE. He then went on to a bloodless conquest of Israel and Egypt a few years later. After his death in 323 BCE, his empire was divided up among his generals. Ptolemy took Israel and Egypt and Seleucus took what is today Syria, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq. Our ancestors lived peacefully among the Egyptian Ptolemies who respected our traditional way of life. In 198 BCE, the Seleucids defeated the Ptolemies and made Israel part of their empire. The Seleucid emperor, desperately needing money to fight off the Romans in the West, the Persians in the East, and the Ptolemies to the Southwest, accepted huge bribes from leading Jewish families in Jerusalem for the office of the Kohan Gadol, the high priest of the Temple. A succession of high priests outbid one another for the office. Jerusalem went from being an autonomous city-state to becoming a Greek polis. How could Jerusalem become a Greek city and still remain Jewish? They priests engaged in a process of religious syncretism, combining the worship of our one God with that of the Greek gods, saying in effect that Adonai was simply another name for Zeus. In about 170 C.E., Antiochus conducted an unsuccessful campaign in Egypt and on his way back to Syria, plundered the Temple, tore down the city walls and established a garrison there. He ordered the Temple rededicated to the sole worship of Zeus and outlawed the practice of Judaism. It is here where we enter unclear territory. We know that Antiochus abrogated the Torah as the constitution of the Jewish people, forbidding the practice and study of Judaism. We do not know exactly why he did this. Some scholars maintain that he did so at the request of Jewish reformers, who wanted to turn Judaism into a Hellenistic cult. We do know that many Jews embraced Greek culture and the entire Greek way of life. The Maccabees, the followers of the priest Mattatias of Modin, led a rebellion against the Hellenizers and the Seleucid enforcers. They first killed the Jews who cooperated with the Seleucids and then fought the Seleucids themselves. After a bitter three year struggle, in which Jewish rebels took on the greatest army in the world, the Maccabees recaptured the Temple and rededicated it to the worship of Adonai. They declared that we would observe an eight day festival in commemoration of this great victory. Hence, we have the origin of Chanukah, which means “dedication.”
Chanukah is still one of my favorite holidays. We cannot help but look back at history through a contemporary lens. On what side would we have fought had we lived 2,150 years ago? Would we have fought with the Maccabees or have stood with the Jewish Hellenizers? Obviously, our ancestors sided with the Maccabees. If they did not, our genetic line would have been extinguished. Despite my hesitations, Chanukah is a glorious celebration of a great victory of the few against the many, the weak against the strong, the Jew against the pagan. It is the most widely celebrated festival in the Jewish world. Music is an important part of that observance.
Our choir will first sing “Kemach Min Hasak,” meaning “Oil from the sack,” a recipe for the making of sweet pancakes for Chanukah. This comes from the Ashkenazic tradition of Eastern Europe. (Song)
Next we have “Hazeremos un Merenda,” meaning “We shall make a meal” in Ladino. This is a Sephardic children’s melody from Adrianopol in Turkey for the making of burmeuelos, a pancake of dough fried in oil, exactly the same dessert from the earlier song. (Song)
Our choir will sing, “A Chanukah Prayer for Children,” by Ryan Brechmacher which was published just three years ago. I know you will like it. (Song)
Our fourth composition is “Ocho Kandelikas” which is “Eight Little Candles” in Ladino. This is one of our favorites.
The last piece for this evening is Leonard Cohen’s “Halleluya,” performed in memory of the late, great Leonard Cohen, who died just a month ago, on November 7 at the age of eighty two in Los Angeles. He originally wrote “Halleluya” in 1984 and performed it a year later. It achieved lasting popular after being featured in the film “Shrek” in 2001. It has been performed manifold times in over three hundred different versions. This is certainly a fitting way to end tonight’s program.