A not very well-known fact about Hanukkah is that it was a late addition to the Jewish holiday calendar. It’s also not just a fun story about a miracle in which a tiny bit of oil lasted eight days. It’s actually based on recorded history—and it can teach us a lot about the world we live in today.
Here’s the scoop: In the second century BCE, Antiochus, a Hellenistic king, seized power in the Middle East. He demanded that everyone in Judea, Syria, and Egypt worship his god, Zeus, and told the Jews they were no longer allowed to study Torah, observe Shabbat, or celebrate Jewish holidays and rituals. Most Jews obeyed (Antiochus was scary). But a small group of rebels, the Maccabees, decided to fight back. They went to battle, not only against the Syrian-Greek army but also against other Jews who weren’t willing to stand up to Antiochus. In 164 BCE, Judah Maccabee led his troops in recapturing most of Jerusalem and restoring and rededicating the Temple.
Lesson One: There are bullies, like Antiochus, who think it’s not suitable for Jews to be different.
As the British Rabbi Jonathan Sacks once said about another historically newish Jewish holiday: “Haman, of the Purim story, wanted to kill Jews. Antiochus, of the Hanukkah story, wanted to kill Judaism.” Though we’d rather kids remain innocent of these truths, we must discuss them. Because in our hyper-connected world, kids will learn about antisemitism whether you tell them or not; better, you should control the telling. You can say, “Some people, like Antiochus, hate and fear the unfamiliar, the unusual. We Jews have always been a tiny minority and have often been viewed as a threat to those who hold more power. Sometimes those people tried to kill us; sometimes they’ve tried to make us give up the things that make us special.”
Lesson Two: Fortunately, there are people who will help us fight those bullies.
We can work with allies to make the world a kinder place, and we can be Maccabees in our own communities, fighting against injustice. PJ Library has suggestions for books about Jews and non-Jews building bridges. The Association of Jewish Libraries has a terrific “Love Your Neighbor” booklist of stories for all ages about Jews and non-Jews standing up for each other.
Lesson Three: Hanukkah means “dedication.” What can that word mean for us today?
We can dedicate ourselves to defending our right to be Jewish, caring for each other and our shared spaces, and learning more about our traditions.
Lesson Four: Be respectful of differences.
Older kids can discuss the fascinating complexity of the Hanukkah story and the fact that the Maccabees fought with other Jews. There’s a midrash, a story about Jewish tradition, saying that the Second Temple was destroyed because of sinat chinam, hatred of others for no reason. Jews were too focused on their anger at one another. We live in a time when not all Jews agree—but we’re also taught that it’s essential to look for the image of God in one another. Let’s think about how we can influence other folks’ hearts without hating them for how they see the world.
Lesson Five: Think about the helper candle.
The shamash is the candle that lights the other candles on the menorah. We, too, can use our light to help others shine. We can bring brightness to dark times and encourage others to create a warm glow. And we can talk about the helpers in our communities, those who fight bigotry. Feeling powerless and alone is dispiriting. Seeing that we have allies and can work together to better the world is invigorating.
Lesson Six: Let your light shine!
We’re encouraged to put our menorah in the window facing the street so everyone can see us celebrating. That’s an act of bravery and pride. Let’s revel in our differences despite the anti-Jewish prejudice out there.
Lesson Seven: Make space for Jewish joy.
Latkes! Jelly donuts! Cuddling and reading Hanukkah books together! Chocolate gelt! Spinning the dreidel! Laughing and noshing and having fun fuel us to do the work of fighting injustice.
Lesson Eight: It’s OK to be scared.
Your feelings are legitimate. You're allowed to feel what you feel. To help put feelings to words, one of the best Hanukkah books is Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins by Eric Kimmel, which takes frightening feelings and makes them manageable. Read it with your family this holiday!
Lesson Nine: No one has all the answers.
When kids have questions about antisemitism that adults can’t answer, it’s okay for us to say, “I don’t know.” Children respond better to honesty than to patently false reassurances. When kids talk about the December dilemma—feeling othered or left out at Christmas, yearning to be part of the majority culture—we can validate their feelings without compromising our values. We can emulate the Maccabees today by preserving our Jewishness.
About the Author
Marjorie Ingall co-authors SORRY, SORRY, SORRY: The Case for Good Apologies with Susan McCarthy. Marjorie is also the author of Mamaleh Knows Best.
Addressing Children’s Big and Difficult Questions
How to Talk to Kids About Antisemitism
Jewish Children's Books That Address Difficult Topics
PJ Library’s Resources for Talking About Israel Today
November 28, 2023