November 22, 2013
This year, for the first time since 1888, Thanksgiving and the first day of Hanukkah fall on the same day. Often, the lunar calendar that Jews use places this festival of lights later, around Christmastime. That has marked it in the popular imagination as analogous to its Christian counterpart, a midwinter celebration of renewal marked by gift-giving.
In fact, the juxtaposition with Thanksgiving is truer to the historic significance of Hanukkah, and it provides a clue to the unique bond between the United States, the Jewish people and Israel.
Hanukkah commemorates the successful revolt led by Judah Maccabee in the second century Before the Common Era against Antiochus, the Greek-Syrian king who banned the practice of the Jewish religion in Judea. Antiochus hoped that by preventing Jews from circumcising their sons and forcing them to give up the kosher laws, Jewish people would lose their distinctive identity and assimilate into the Hellenized culture of the Middle East. His army took over the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and introduced idol worship there, making it into a pagan sanctuary.
The Maccabean uprising, which resulted in the recapture of the temple and the restoration of Jewish practice, was the first revolt in history conducted for freedom of religion. Had it not succeeded, Judaism could very well have perished, and its two monotheistic offspring religions, Christianity and Islam, might never have emerged.
Intuiting the significance of their victory, the Jews instituted Hanukkah. Its first day marks the anniversary of the temple's rededication. From that time forward, Jews have kindled lights each year for eight nights, symbolizing the triumph of religious faith over the darkness of intolerance and oppression. Through centuries of dispersion and religious persecution, the Hanukkah candles have expressed the ongoing Jewish hope for a better future.
Much like the Jews under Antiochus, the Protestant separatists, known as Pilgrims, were also a religious minority deprived of the right to worship God as they saw fit. Alienated from the Anglican Church in England that suppressed dissenters, they were searching for a place where they could practice their religion in freedom.
They strongly identified with the ancient Jews and stressed the study of the Old Testament and the Hebrew language. They viewed the coast of Massachusetts, where they landed in 1620, as a new Promised Land, and themselves as a chosen people analogous to the biblical Israelites. The first Thanksgiving, when the Pilgrims gave thanks to God for the harvest, was based directly on biblical precedent.
As the colonies grew, the Pilgrims' religious inspiration and their pursuit of religious freedom became embedded in the American DNA. The United States became the first country to declare all citizens equal regardless of their religious beliefs, and thus to recognize all religious people, including Jews -- descendants of the Maccabees, who pioneered the ideal of religious liberty -- as possessing the same rights as all other Americans.
And in the tradition of the Pilgrims who identified with biblical Israel, Americans have felt kinship with the Zionist dream of a Jewish return to the land of Israel, the site of their revolt against King Antiochus. From President Harry Truman, who championed the creation of Israel in 1948, to today, polls have indicated that Americans are uniquely sympathetic to the Jewish state, understanding of its strategic dilemmas and appreciative of the common values the two countries share: democracy, the importance of economic growth and social development, and the conviction that all people possess equal dignity in the eyes of God.
So on Thursday, let's celebrate the convergence of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah -- American values and Jewish history -- eating turkey by the light of the menorah. After all, the two holidays won't coincide again for about 78,000 years.
Robert Socolof is director of the American Jewish Committee, Long Island Region.