Same and Different: The Never-Ending Story of Chanukah | Sandor Schuman

Listen to a version of Sandor’s story told live here.

I am usually introduced as Sandy, but my given name is Sandor. Sandor is derived from Alexander – I am named after Alexander the Great. You might ask, why was a nice Jewish boy like me named after Alexander the Great?

When Alexander the Great conquered Judea, the Jews were anxious. It was typical in those days that the conquering army would insist, “We won because our gods are better than your gods”, and so it was incumbent upon the conquered people to adopt the conquering gods as their own. The Jews came to Alexander and said, “We want to continue to worship our own God and follow his laws.” So Alexander learned about the Jewish God and examined their laws and said, “This is okay! You’ve got a good set of laws here. You can continue to sacrifice to your God and follow his laws.” The Jews were so relieved and grateful they said, “We would like to show our appreciation and honor you in some way. We will name our children after you.” 2,300 years later, I am living proof of that promise.

Alexander died unexpectedly, without heirs or a business continuity plan, so his generals divided his lands among themselves and handed them down from one generation to the next. 200 years later, the land of Judea came into the hands of King Antiochus IV. He called himself Theos Epiphanes – God Manifest.

As God Manifest, he couldn’t have the Jews worshiping some other god! So he took over the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, installed statues of the Greek gods, and sacrificed to them. Because he knew it was strictly forbidden by Jewish law, he required the Jews to sacrifice pigs and eat pig meat.

When the Jews of Jerusalem and the other cities heard this edict they said, “OK.”

You thought I was going to say “No way!” didn’t you. You thought I was going to say they were repulsed by this affront to their religion, but no, there were many who were on board. After 200 years of Greek rule, they had gotten the message. They knew the Greeks owned the world; that this was the dominant culture. They were Hellenists; they were already assimilating. They didn’t want to be different; they wanted to be the same.

And let’s face it, the Greeks had good stuff. They had mathematics, philosophy, arts, dance, drama. They had rock and roll, iPhones, high-speed wireless Internet access – sorry, sorry, wrong dominant culture. Assimilation was the way forward, especially in the big cities where the cultural innovations and attractions were the most irresistible.

But this spirit of assimilation did not extend out in the countryside, where the Jews were more traditionally inclined. So Antiochus sent his emissaries, his soldiers, to the outlying villages, to enforce the Greek way. When they arrived in the little village of Modi’in, they sought out the most prestigious, honorable person in the community, one of the elders; they found Matisyahu, who was a Kohein, a member of the priestly tribe.

People gathered around in the Modi’in village square. The emissaries made their case to Matisyahu, imploring him to adopt Greek ways. “We are the Greeks. You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile! It’s time for you and all the Jews to follow our ways, to conform. Set an example, Matt. We’ll give you the best pig. Sacrifice it on this altar. Eat the pig meat. Show the community that this is the right thing to do.”

Matisyahu isn’t moved. “Ain’t gonna happen fellas. No way. We’re traditional Jews. We’re not about to adopt that so-called modern stuff. That might go over in the big city, but fellas, it ain’t goin’ over here.”

Now one of the other Jews of Modi’in says to the Greeks, “I’m with you guys. I’ll do it.” He’s about to sacrifice the pig when Matisyahu draws his knife and kills him, along with the king’s emissaries and soldiers, then calls, “All you who are zealous for the Lord come with me!” Then he and his five sons head off into the hills with as many followers as will come and establish a guerrilla army, the insurgency that’s going to battle the dominant culture.

It turns out that one of Matisyahu’s sons has a talent for military strategy: Judah. He establishes hidden training camps and conducts guerrilla warfare. He’s persistent, with surprise attacks, ambushes – roadside bombs, IEDs (sorry, wrong insurgency!) – continually bothering and battering the Greeks, in spite of their greater numbers and strength. This unrelenting pounding earns him a nickname, the “Hammer.” And his insurgent guerrilla army becomes known as the “Hammers”  – in the local language, the Maccabees.

King Antiochus IV won’t let these Jews get away with it. He shows his muscle. He’ll stay the course! But, after three years, worn down by continued fighting, the army is disheartened; popular support is waning. Judah and the Maccabees go to Jerusalem, retake the Holy Temple, clean it up, and rededicate it.

The dedication included the belated celebration of the fall harvest festival, Sukkot, an eight-day holiday that hadn’t been celebrated because they were so busy fighting. They were so proud of their accomplishment, they declared there should be an annual festival, to be called “Dedication.” It’s a holiday we still celebrate today. You may know it as Chanukah. Chanukah celebrated a military victory: the few triumphant against the many, the weak victorious over the mighty.

Fast-forward a few hundred years. The Romans conquered Judea and dispersed the Jews. The community of Jews in Babylonia recognizes the need to preserve and recodify their writings and oral tradition. The sages of the community (the teachers, the rabbis) review the historical accounts of Chanukah. They consider this story, which they teach to their children in their schools, and become keenly aware of their precarious place in the dominant culture – the fact that their existence depends on the Babylonian authorities. Their reasoning goes something like this: “The Babylonians are going to look at what we’re teaching, and they will see this military triumph and they’re going to think we’re planning an insurgency! They will think we’re feeding our children this history to reinforce the hope that we will once again triumph against the dominant culture! They will feel threatened and shut us down! This isn’t going to work!”

So, they changed the story. When the Maccabees retook the Holy Temple, they said, they wanted to relight the seven-branched oil lamp, the menorah. They searched for olive oil but found only one jug of pure olive oil bearing the seal of the High Priest; enough to burn for only one day. Miraculously, the oil burned for eight, long enough to obtain a fresh supply of pure olive oil.

In reconstructing the story, the rabbis shifted its core from the miracle of the military victory to the miracle of the oil, of the one-day supply that lasted for eight. Clever, those rabbis. They made the story safe for a new dominant culture.


When we celebrate Chanukah, we acknowledge a Miracle of the Oil that never really happened, an eight-day belated Sukkot that was transformed into an eight-day Festival of Lights. A transformation that was critical, because it enabled us to persevere under the weight of the then-dominant culture. There is a never-ending tension, experienced by all minorities, between being the same and being different, between our desire to be accepted and embraced by theirs, and the desire to preserve and enhance our own.

This story of Chanukah is never ending. To counter the enticement of Christmas we’ve transformed Chanukah from a minor holiday into a major one, with gifts and decorations and family gatherings; trying to preserve how we are different, finding a counter-balance to being fully the same.

Once, when I was a child, my mother took me to see Santa Claus. I waited on a long line and when my turn finally came, Santa helped me climb up onto his lap. He leaned over to my ear and asked, “And what would you like for Christmas, little boy?” I looked up at him and said, “I’m Jewish, we don’t celebrate Christmas, we celebrate Chanukah.” Santa looked at me, leaned over again, and said, “No? And what would you like for Chanukah, little boy?”

There is a story we tell, a story about two kings. One king says to the other, “In my kingdom, we persecute the Jews; we don’t allow them to own property, we make them live in a confined area, we tax them heavily. But you! You embrace the Jews; you welcome them into your schools, their businesses flourish, you allow them to intermarry. What is wrong with you?”

The other king replied, “You get rid of your Jews your way, I’ll get rid of my Jews my way.”

These are not the only ways. These are not the only kings.

My name is Sandor Schuman, and I am honored to be named after yet another kind of king, Alexander the Great.

sandor schumanSandor (Sandy) Schuman is a group facilitator, collaborative process advocate, and storyteller. He helps government and not-for-profit organizations create shared meaning, make critical choices, and build collaborative relationships. In addition to using storytelling in his consulting work, his storytelling performances include personal adventures, historical sagas, tall tales, and original Jewish stories and songs. He is the author of Adirondack Mendel’s Aufruf: Welcome to Chelm’s Pond, where the stories of Chelm meet the tall tales of the Adirondacks, and blogs at Another Side to the Story. He plays his theme song on a Jew’s harp.

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