I saw the Maccabee Menorah advertised somewhere (the individual candles are the Maccabee brothers, though somehow they squeezed nine candles out of a family of five), and a Judah Maccabee Action Figure somewhere else. They seem more appropriate for Hanukkah than the ad where the guy was wearing an electric menorah-hat, which made him look like a very weird moose and also seemed to require him to stand near an electrical outlet. After all, Hanukkah is supposed to be about heroes, and the Maccabees are remembered as powerful guerilla warriors who smashed the might of a pagan army. They fought, they won, and we get to eat latkes.
Then there’s Christmas, which competes for attention during December. When I grew up in Brooklyn, we always compared the number of windows with the orange electric menorahs to the number of houses decked out in Christmas lights and Santa-stuff. The Christmas tale didn’t seem to compare very favorably, in my young Jewish imagination, with the story of Hanukkah. You had a manger (whatever that was), the father Joseph, the mother Mary, and this kid in a cradle, usually displayed on someone’s lawn. It was something like a sculpture garden vs. an action movie—which would you rather see as a kid?
But I grew up, and I realized that Hanukkah was about more than just heroics. That was a part of it, but it was really about being able to continue to worship God as Jews in the midst of a lot of forces that said, “You can’t be a Jew.” The Maccabees were (in popular imagination anyway), Jews who were tough enough to take a stand for what being a Jew was all about. I also discovered more about Christmas, which, as it turned out, wasn’t just about a baby on a lawn. It was about a Jewish rabbi who had the koach to face death on behalf of others—actually all of humanity, so that others could live. That also is a kind of heroics. Like Hanukkah, it had to do with a small group of Jews who did what they had to in order to continue worshipping God as Jews. The Jewish followers of Jesus in that first century took a tough stand, too, to follow the Jewish Messiah
Jewish toughness is well represented in Jewish history: besides the Maccabees, there is Bar Kochba, Tick-Tock Tannenbaum (one of a colorful assortment of Jewish gangsters), the heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto, Israel’s first halutzim. And mitten drinnen, Jesus?
Yes, Jesus is a Jewish hero, even if you didn’t know that. But there’s tough, and then there’s tough. To see what I mean, check out my article “Tough Jews: Hanukkah, Heroism and the Identity of the Messiah”.