The first Hanukah was about a Middle Eastern oil crisis -- not about a shortfall in the desert, a debate over whether to drill in environmentally correct habitats or even about oil found underground. The oil crisis that led to the celebration of Hanukah was about the oil that grows on trees, olive trees. The oil crisis of 164 B.C., perhaps not unlike the oil crisis of 2006, could only be solved by a miracle.
There are many versions of the origins of Hanukah, but the most likely one, or at least the most popular one, is about the Jewish defeat of the Hellenic Syrians. You won't find the story in the history books in Damascus. But in Jewish homes throughout the world this week, men, women and children talk and sing of "the miracle of the oil." It's a story where good triumphs over evil, which may be a reason why the Syrians ignore it.
Antiochus IV, the ruler of the Seleucid Empire, once part of the vast kingdom of Alexander the Great, decided -- like Hitler two millennia later -- that the Jews had to be eliminated.
Where Alexander had been tolerant of Jews, Antiochus was a terrorist who massacred Jews. He outlawed their religion and forbade the rituals that bound them together -- such as the circumcision of their sons, the observance of the Sabbath and the reading of Holy Scripture. His officers sacrificed pigs in their temple and commanded the Jews to make sacrifices to pagan gods.
Considerable courage was required to stand against the mighty Syrian army, but Mattathias, an elderly Hebrew priest, and his five sons, refused to follow orders and fought back. They became known as the Maccabees -- the word means "hammer" in Hebrew -- and they hammered away at the Syrians, humiliating the larger army, which sued for peace on the 25th day of Kislev on the Hebrew calendar.
When the Jews rededicated their temple, they saw that the lamp, the "everlasting light" at their altar, had enough sacred olive oil to burn for only one day. Miraculously, it burned for eight days, until more oil was found. The holiday is called a festival of lights because it symbolizes the power of faith over force, although in fact it required more than a little force to protect the faith.
Hanukah is one of those happy holidays that reflects the spirit of the times through traditional observances updated with contemporary trends. The menorahs that hold the eight candles commemorating the holiday are both classic and kitsch, made with graceful old-fashioned candle stems as well as new-fashioned ones in the image of the Statue of Liberty, stars and even footballs.
It's easy to sneer at kitsch, but I remember how pleased my grandfather was when he gave me a menorah with electric bulbs instead of candles. My mother and I were embarrassed by the commercial rendering of the traditional design, but we didn't let him know it. The new menorah was high tech for an immigrant from Lithuania, and he was proud to celebrate in "the American way."
My grandsons delight now in turning the bulbs into place on the menorah and watching them glow with light, and take pleasure in the gift of the great-great-grandfather they would never know.
Holidays are always happy occasions, but the joy of Hanukah is dimmed this year by the realization that Jews are under attack again. A conference in Iran united the Holocaust deniers. And back home, Jimmy Carter, the former president, blames the Jews in Israel for preventing the outbreak of peace in the Middle East. He calls the Israelis "even worse" than the South Africans who enforced apartheid.
Kenneth Stein, a professor of contemporary Middle Eastern history, resigned as a fellow of the Carter Center at Emory University to protest, describing his old friend's book as studded with "factual errors, copied materials not cited, superficialities, glaring omissions and simply invented segments." When the former president met with a group of rabbis in Phoenix to talk about it, the rabbis -- who admired his earlier advocacy of human rights -- scolded him for his bare acknowledgment of Palestinian terrorists and suicide bombers.
There are only occasional glimmers of the "everlasting light" in these unhappy times. Syria said it might give up its demand for the Golan Heights as a precondition for peace talks, but the Israelis, long accustomed to hope dashed by experience, suspect this is more distraction than promise. But this is the season for miracles.