"What's the Meaning of Hanukkah?"

By Mendele Moykher-Sforim, translated by Ri J. Turner

Holiday stories were a tradition in Yiddish literature. Audiences looked forward to reading the latest tale by their favorite writer in the Yiddish newspaper. The stories marked the passage of time, permanance and change, the eternal and the transitory. Writers like Sholem Aleichem became masters of the genre. 

And what of Mendele Moykher-Sforim? Of the three canonical Yiddish writers, Mendele had the most unusual output; unlike Peretz and Sholem Aleichem, he mainly wrote novellas and full novels. He is not known for his short stories, most of which were written in Hebrew. But he, too, participated in the genre of Yiddish Holiday writing. (Many of the stories can be found in volume 9 of Mendele's collected works.)

"Vos heyst khanuke?" is a good example of Mendele's particular inflection on the form. The story assumes Jewish knowledge; it is filled with references to other Jewish holidays. It earnestly interrogates an actual philosophical, religious question. And it comes to a surprising conclusion. The end makes you question the assumed logic of the beginning. A gift for Hanukkah. 

Eitan Kensky

What’s the Meaning of Hanukkah?

“A great miracle happened to me on Hanukkah.”

“What do you mean ‘to you,’ Shmuel? How about ‘to us’? Isn’t it as much my miracle as yours?”

“Actually, dear Ignatz, a great miracle happened to me on Hanukkah—to me and not to you.”

“What’s the point of arguing with a beys-medresh old-timer? As far as you’re concerned, we, today’s Jews, aren’t Jews at all, and you house-of-study bookworms from the olden days have some kind of contract with the Master of the Universe, an exclusive claim to yidishkeyt.”

“Nothing you’re saying, Ignatz, is in the least connected to the story that I mean to tell you. By the way, today’s not the right moment for such quarrels. We have better things to do—throw together a card game, eat latkes, and spend time with the crowd. That’s why I invited you over, my good fellow—but seeing as the other guests haven’t arrived yet, and you brought up this touchy subject, well—I’ll just have to give you a thorough answer. You understand, we’re all Jews, whether observant or maskilim, God-fearing or secular. I, for example, ‘dwelt in the tents of Shem’ from earliest childhood, in kheyder, in yeshive, whereas you went to ‘school’ and don’t yet know the meaning of ‘the yoke of Torah,’ yet nevertheless we’re both Jews. So what’s the difference between us? Yidishkeyt engraved itself in my heart, in my mind, and in each of my 248 limbs. I, and those like me, have a special appreciation for Jewish custom—it’s in our bones, whether we know it or not. Even if we stray, even if we convert—God forbid!—we’ll never forget the feel of yidishkeyt. But when it comes to someone like you—someone who never ‘immersed himself with Torah and devotion,’ a bal-tshuve, a newly observant Jew who didn’t bear the yoke of yidishkeyt until long after childhood—you simply can’t appreciate the true flavor of a Jewish custom, a Jewish commandment, even if you’re docile and good and perform every action with the greatest fervor.”

“Oh, go on, Shmuel; you and your nonsense! That’s nothing more than what the idlers say behind the oven in the house of study, bleating and philosophizing whether or not anyone is listening. No one’s yet proved any of it.”

“Prove it? Certainly! I can prove it with piles of examples, with storehouses of facts—tens, hundreds—”

“Good evening! Good evening! What are you so riled up about in here? What’s all the fuss? You’re apparently so engrossed in your card game that you didn’t even hear us come in. This is the second time we’ve said good evening!”

"Oh, oh, welcome! Welcome, Mister Tudrus, Mister Zerakh, Mister Gimpl, Mister . . ., Mister . . .”

“Hush! On Hanukkah no one’s a mister. On Hanukkah we say Reb Tudrus, Reb Gimpl, just like on Shabes we say migdoyl instead of magdil. But that’s not the point. The point is, what are you two fellows discussing with so much vigor? Maybe we’re interrupting, Reb Shmuel, so don’t let us disturb you. If it’s something confidential, we’ll continue on into the dining room to say good evening to our hostess.”

“Not at all! We’re not discussing any secrets. Have a seat, fellows, and you’ll hear, too. I started telling the story of the miracle that happened to me on Hanukkah, that’s all.”

“Why not? Go ahead, we’re listening. But make it quick. After all, it’s Hanukkah. It’s the time to play cards and gamble a little. How does the Bible verse go? ‘On all other nights . . . but tonight, everything’s gin rummy.’ A dollar a minute . . .”

“The story isn’t long at all. The whole point isn’t even the incident itself but the effect it had on me later. That’s why I’ve developed a habit of mentioning it every year on Hanukkah.

“At that time, and maybe today too, for Jewish boys who’re stuck in kheyder like chickens in cages from early in the morning until nine o’clock at night, there was no better time of year than the eight days of Hanukkah. No small thing, Hanukkah! You didn’t have to study, you got Hanukkah gelt from your mother and father, from your aunts and uncles, your grandmas and grandpas . . . you played dreydl, you made deals, and if you got really lucky, you also got to halve potatoes and make them into Hanukkah lamps for your father—in short, you lived like God in Odessa!

“I remember, it was right then, it was the eighth day, and I was as cheerful as could be. The eight Hanukkah lamps that were burning on the windowsill near the door looked to me like the chalices of the golden menorah in the Temple. The wicks shone and sparkled like eight pure stars. Inside the house it was bright and warm, my mother fried chicken fat, the fragrance of cracklings and onions wafted into my nose and tickled it. My father sat with guests around the table, discussing words of Torah. They spoke with their entire bodies, gestured widely, used their thumbs to make a point, got worked up. All in all, it was jovial. 

“And what did they talk about? The matter at hand, of course. Every few minutes, a question could be heard above the clamor: ‘What’s the meaning of Hanukkah?’ They wrinkled their brows, scrunched up their faces, bit the tips of their beards—but they couldn’t answer the question! One of the fellows stood up, quoted something from the Talmud, developed his argument, added new bits of evidence, interpreted it all with enthusiasm, and showed great perspicacity. From all those fine, convoluted speeches, I understood only one thing: the Gentiles polluted all the oil in the Temple, and when the Hasmoneans overpowered them and drove them out, only one small jug of oil sealed with the high priest’s seal was left. That jug should have lasted for only one day, but a miracle took place, and the light kept burning for eight full days.

“On account of the fact that I was very drunk that night, and on account of the fact that as far as I was concerned, Hanukkah was a grand holiday, I—a pipsqueak, a scamp—lost all fear of my father and of strangers with long beards and cried out like a witness who doesn’t even know he’s on the stand: ‘Big deal! So a jug of oil lasted eight days—that isn’t a miracle at all. On the other hand, if one jug had lasted for a whole year, and we could have Hanukkah year-round, now that’s what I’d call a miracle. We’d be free of our teacher and his slaps and punches . . .’

I—a pipsqueak, a scamp—lost all fear of my father and of strangers with long beards and cried out like a witness who doesn’t even know he’s on the stand: ‘Big deal! So a jug of oil lasted eight days—that isn’t a miracle at all. On the other hand, if one jug had lasted for a whole year, and we could have Hanukkah year-round, now that’s what I’d call a miracle.’

“Before I had even finished my speech, my father delivered a great, mighty, and terrible smack.

“‘You savage! So you want to go wild, run around like a peasant boy, and never do a lick of work? And grow up to be a goy and a boor, eh?’ That’s what my father shouted, and I would probably have earned a few more good slaps in the face if a miracle hadn’t happened: the first slap caused my hat to fly off. Before bending over to try to get hold of it, I naturally had to cover my bare head with the tail of my caftan. Meanwhile, my father’s anger flickered out . . . What are you smiling at, Ignatz? Are you making fun of me?”

“On the contrary! I’ve realized that my earlier complaints were unjustified; that’s why I’m smiling now.”

“Believe me, dear Ignatz, you’re always unjustified whenever you accuse me of that sort of thing. And do you know why? Because, my friend, you’re a bal-tshuve, and every bal-tshuve is a bit of a fanatic, a pest, a fault finder who’s beside himself with glee when he catches a flaw in one of his elders, whether it’s his father, his grandfather, or some other member of an older generation. No one is as much of an expert in not giving the benefit of the doubt as a bal-tshuve. And no offense, but it’s because bal-tshuves don’t possess the virtue of patience that they’ve gotten a bad name and people are leery of getting too close to them.”

“Gentlemen, save your quarrel for another time,” intervened the guests. “Wrap up the story, and make it quick!”

“Anyway, the slap itself,” Shmuel went on, “wouldn’t even be worth mentioning if it hadn’t ultimately caused an upheaval that led me to discover new ideas. Basically, the slap I received from my father was not in vain. The whole discussion of Hanukkah, my father’s anger, the unexpected slap—it all remained vivid in my memory and drove me at quite a young age to chew on the question, ‘What’s the meaning of Hanukkah?’ Like all little boys, I knew quite well that on Hanukkah we recite the prayer Al hanisim, and in Al hanisim it says, ‘In the time of Matisyahu ben Yohanan Hashmonai and his sons the priests, the evil kingdom of the Greeks rose up against the People of Israel to cause them to forget the Holy Torah. And the Blessed Holy One performed a miracle and delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the evil into the hands of the righteous, and the wanton into the hands of those who study His Torah. Afterward, they purified the sanctuary and kindled lights and instituted the eight-day festival of Hanukkah.’

“And here’s how I interpreted it: the strong—that’s the Greeks—and the weak—that’s Matisyahu and his sons and the rest of the faithful Jews: scholars, house-of-study bookworms, like today’s melamdim for example, or the rabbis and idlers who sit in the house of study and occupy themselves with Torah. The other side naturally went into battle with horses and chariots and we with repentance, prayer, and charity. That there was a Judah Maccabee once upon a time, and that he and his brothers were powerful warriors—that, of course, I had never heard, and my rebbe didn’t breathe a word of it either.

“So when I heard the guests debating that night about the meaning of Hanukkah, I drew the conclusion that the passage from Al hanisim wasn’t entirely clear, nor did it answer every question. The story about the single jar of oil that should have lasted only one day but lit the sanctuary for eight didn’t make sense either. If that’s how it happened, then the miracle itself only lasted for seven days—so why introduce an eight-day holiday? 

“And in that way, I puzzled and pondered and searched and sought, until one day I allowed the Evil Impulse to talk me into opening an extra-canonical book—a book of Jewish history, in other words. And it was only then that my eyes were opened and I found an answer to my question.

“And now, my friends, ha ha, I know what the meaning of Hanukkah is!”