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Hanukkah Is a Hardcore Badass Holiday That’s Perfect for the Pandemic Age

The year 2020 has made Maccabees of us all

Oh, you thought our Thanksgiving op-eds were bad? Gird your stockings for the least wonderful time of the year, when the merry gentlepeople of MEL attempt to outdo one another with the most heinous holiday takes we can unwrap. We can already feel the angry tweets nipping at our noses.

From here on out, if you aren’t Jewish, you don’t get to ask a Jewish person when Hanukkah starts. Much like the question “Does he look Jewish to you?,” it’s the kind of thing Jews can ask each other, but you can’t ask us. You can Google it, or you can maybe ask a non-Jew. Those are the rules. It’s only fair. I’m not going around asking you when Christmas starts this year. And yes, that’s different. But no, I don’t care. I remember that Christmas is December 25th, so please kindly return the favor regarding Hanukkah. The information is readily available, and it spares me the indignity of realizing I also am not sure when Hanukkah starts until two weeks before it begins.

But my failure to plan ahead is not the point. The point is, it’s polite to figure out when Hanukkah is on your own, and this year is a perfect time to start. Not just because I’m sick of filling you in (or, as we’ve established, possibly unprepared to fill you in). It’s because this year, Hanukkah is especially relevant. If you don’t know the story of Hanukkah, shame on you for not listening to the presentation by the one Jewish kid in your second grade class who was forced into duty as a tiny theologian several times a year for the sake of his classmates. And yes, I’m projecting a little.

Here it is in short, with a shoutout to Wikipedia for an assist on the dates: In the second century BCE, the Maccabees (rugged, outdoorsy Jews) defeated the larger, better-trained army of King Antiochus after eight years of fighting. When the war ended, the Second Temple in Jerusalem was in ruins, and as the Maccabees restored it, they realized there was only enough oil to fuel the ner tamid (eternal light) for one day, but that oil miraculously burned for eight whole days. Hence, the Eight Crazy Nights of Sandlerian tradition.

The wild thing is, Hanukkah isn’t even that central a holiday to the Jewish faith, but it does pretty neatly sum up our whole deal. An external force tried to wipe the Jewish people off the map, and our reaction is: “This shit again?” It’s a very 2020 way to feel, with the shit in question being, I don’t know, take your pick between murder hornets, an entire continent catching fire, and of course, the deadly, still-raging pandemic. This year, even the ancillary events — like a series of frivolous lawsuits named after a mythical creature or smoke briefly blocking out the sun in California — feel pretty bleak.

Many of the biggest days on the calendar, at least for American Jews, are the holidays that you can’t always precede with “happy!” From just their descriptions, it can be hard to tell which occasions take on what tone. A fast day of atonement (Yom Kippur); a celebration of avoiding genocide in biblical times (Purim); a somewhat bittersweet celebration of escaping slavery in biblical times (Passover); another celebration of avoiding genocide in biblical times (Hanukkah).

Real allies know to ask, “Is this one of the happy ones?” when a Jewish holiday approaches. The answer is often: Sort of. If this planet and the Jewish people last another 500 years, the parties for Holocaust Remembrance Day are going to be unbelievable. Despite its focus on small brittle candles and hash browns for dinner, Hanukkah shares that sense of jubilation in the wake of adversity.

Think of it this way: There are essentially two famous songs about Hanukkah. One describes a game that teaches children how to gamble (which is very cool), and the other one is a rhyming list by the aforementioned Adam Sandler of all the famous living Jews. That may seem like gloating, but really it’s a reminder that one song’s worth (okay, now it’s three songs, but you get it) of celebrities is all we’ve got, and some of them (but fewer than you’d think) have died since those songs were written. We are constantly clinging to what and who we have left. At this point in American history, supporting each other amid dwindling numbers is our central project as humans. This year has made Maccabees of us all.

Since March, life has felt like a constant siege for basically everyone — with the worst of the pandemic and the economic struggle falling on people of color and low-income neighborhoods. The fight against COVID-19 isn’t literally a war, but it is being exacerbated by an unjust leader, and even when he abdicates power (or is set up in a Maggie Simpson steering-wheel-style fake White House), it will take a miracle of both medicine and bureaucratic conscience to create some semblance of stability. The only aspect of the Hanukkah story that doesn’t feel relevant to American life in 2020 is that it involves a war that comes to an end. Otherwise, it’s beginning to look a lot like Hanukkah basically everywhere you go.