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Friday, 29 November 2013

Have Yourself a Merry ‘Pseudo-Christmas’!


In my treasure box of best-loved ironies there’s one about the British Fascist Oswald Mosley having Handel’s Judas Maccabeus Oratorio played at his funeral. Air.Oswald.Mosley

How wonderful, I’ve long thought, that the old villain decided to have himself played out to magnificent music honouring one of Jewish tradition’s greatest heroes. Mosley, of course, was so bloated from ingesting ceaseless streams of self-regenerating hatred that he would never have looked over his belly to see the joke smirking in  his face.

It is odd, indeed, that notorious Jew haters should be forever fascinated by the Maccabees. Thus Hollywood actor, Mel Gibson also gets a walk-on part here as someone who vilifies Jews but nonetheless tried to make a movie based on the Chanucah story. The project failed when he was thwarted by his enemies – not all of them Jewish.

I did not immediately recognise the origin of the  trumpet solo played at synagogue as we concluded our first night Chanucah celebrations. But later, when I remembered it, I realised that the plangent tones came from the oratorio which could not have been a more appropriate choice.

Judas.MaccabaeusFirst, the festival hinges on the courageous exploits of Judas Maccabee and his companions in saving the Jewish community of Ancient Israel from the Seleucid Greeks and their miraculous rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.

Then there was how our synagogue celebrated: After the first candles on the chanukiah were lit and the blessings recited  recalling what had then occurred, those present were invited to debate the nature of heroism.

While one acquaintance suggested that ultimate heroism was exemplified by those in the fire service, others referred to military figures and great political leaders who may pursue a lone path in the face of great adversity, thereby improving the lives of masses of people whom they would never meet in person.

I proposed that the terms ‘hero’ and heroism’ are loaded as they mean different things in separate circumstances. The dictionary definitions may well refer to  physical ‘valour’ but they do not allow for the pluck shown by very ordinary folk living quiet lives who may not display courage in a conventional manner, but speak out when they perceive wrong-doing or perhaps surrender a comfortable way of life in order to care for others.


So here’s  my chance to congratulate those U.K. Jewish parents, charities – and  even some children – who have expressed fears that Chanucah  “has now become a ‘pseudo-Christmas’, with the miracle of the Maccabees’ oil lost under an avalanche of television advertising, competitive gift-giving and overt commercialism”.

I’ve always loathed the gross deceit of the so-called season of goodwill and while still living in the U.K. grew increasingly uneasy about how it crept further and further into Jewish homes.

Candle.LightingAs I’ve already remarked, I still have the Singer's siddur (prayer book) my father gave to me as a Chanucah gift when I was aged five. The late 1950s were indeed more innocent, sterner times when middle-class Anglo-Jewish kids had different and vastly lower expectations than the present generation. The candle lightings and traditional Jewish nosh aside, the festival was kept very low-key; treated as an ordinary week interspersed with the odd party, a synagogue children’s parade and maybe a cheder (religious classes) prize giving.

As a very young kid it all became somehow tied up with the surrounding Christmas festivities, but at a distance, because the winter break was a holiday for everyone, especially when the two festivals coincided or overlapped. Everyone went to a pantomime, enjoyed a large holiday lunch and  watched the same shows on television.

But the boundaries drawn then were far stronger then those painted now.  Chanucah was for Jewish people; Christmas most certainly was not. This is only one reason why the Anglo-Orthodox rabbinate should do everything in its power to encourage, not to deter  the activities of organisations like Limmud, the pluralist Jewish educational charity, which meets during the winter break. The much-loved international learning fest was created partly to help serious students of Judaism to escape the dreary awfulness of the interminable ‘winterval’. But I’ll be back on this subject very soon.

Meanwhile, my best wishes for a great Chanucah are extended to those celebrating, while my sincere thanks go to friends from outside the community for their gracious wishes of festive cheer.


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