Gillian’s classic telling of the story of Chanukah

Chanukah is almost over, so it’s time for that traditional tale “Even the footnotes of my footnotes have their own footnotes”

Once upon a time there was war in the Middle East (a). This is a rare and unusual occurrence. As a result of that rare and unusual occurrence, Israel (1) was overrun by rather pagan invaders. This led to some interesting history being written, down the track. It also led to the establishment of a festival which can be technically classified under “They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat.” Unlike other festivals in this category (2), the story is not about death. Also, the invasion was more about freedom of religion than about mass murder and eliminating Jews from the face of the earth. This qualifies Chanukah as a cheerful festival.

Permeating the Jewish tradition about the reign of Antiochus in Judea are many exciting tales. They include histories of patience in adversity and of blood and gore (b). There are stories of alcoholism, preceded by patience in adversity and followed by blood and gore, and of weaving cloaks from those odd bits of wool that get caught on brambles when sheep walk too close (3).

Of all these stories, the most famous one is how the Maccabees (4) won back the Temple. They won back a lot more than the Temple, but the Temple was the important bit. The straw that broke the camel’s back were the pigs, apparently. Pigs in the Temple. And straw. And camels.

No, only pigs. Sorry. (c)

Still, the problem with the Temple was that it was being used for worship of a rather interesting Hellenistic pantheon. The pigs were the symptom, not the problem.

The Maccabees were a strong Jewish family. They could have been role models for Che Guevara, because their preferred type of politics was charismatic, and their preferred form of warfare, guerrilla. They had not, however, read Karl Marx. They also didn’t speak Spanish. (d) They did, however, practise all those heinous acts forbidden under Antiochus’ enlightened pagan rule, namely Torah study, keeping Sabbath holy, keeping a kosher kitchen, circumcision… They didn’t like the obligatory nature of Antiochus’ intriguing variety of paganism. Other rebellious souls who kept kosher suffered martyrdom for their efforts (e). But then, those other rebellious souls weren’t charismatic guerrilla leaders.

After long and bloody trials and much hiding in the wilderness (5), the Maccabee family and their followers won back Judea and most importantly the Temple (6).

Let me remind you that Antiochus had insisted that all Jews worship his own, not-at-all-Jewish, deities (7). This worship was enforced everywhere, including at that holiest of holies, the Temple. It was used for worship that looked decidedly unsavoury to the pure-minded revolutionaries. (Revolutionaries are always pure-minded.) When the Temple was won back, they wept because it was defiled (putative pigs! (f)).

The solution for the defiled Temple was simple. Firstly came a big spring clean. After that, re-sanctification.

Re-sanctification was somewhat of a problem. Not that re-sanctification in itself was a difficult procedure, but there was no holy oil. The Temple had, after all, been defiled, and that went for most of its contents, too. After much searching, extra virgin olive oil (8) was found, but only a small amount. In fact, there was only enough holy oil for one day, instead of the required eight. But one little lamp of oil lasted eight days, and the ancient Judeans declared that “A Great Miracle Happened Here (8a)” and threw a party to celebrate. Jews ever since then have spent 8 days of the year enjoying the miracle.

The Hebrew acronym describing the event became the basis of gambling using a spinning top, probably around the eighteenth century. It is pure co-incidence that the annual Jewish gambling and gift-giving stint is between Melbourne Cup Day and Christmas.

(a) Australia existed. It was appearing on some maps, maybe. We know it existed, though, because the people living here actually lived here (i), but no-one asked them. Those-who-write-these-things-elsewhere had developed a nice theory of its existence (derived mathematically, which is how it came to possibly appear on maps) and would soon define it officially as the Anti-Podes. There were no sheep in the Anti-Podes. Nor were there sheep jokes.
(i) Really. And they’d been living here a long time. And still no-one thought to ask them. Life is strange that way.

(1) Or Judea, or whatever that stretch of territory was called around 165 BCE

(2) Other key categories for Jewish festivals include “Let’s be miserable together” and “Something important happened on this day, but it was thousands of years ago and we will spend the whole day trying to remember, and half the night too” and “Three thousand years ago or so we probably planted/harvested/rioted around now” and “We haven’t overeaten for a few days, time for a festival” and “Let’s do no housework.”(ii) All Jewish festivals fit together under a general heading of “Let’s read.” The genre of the reading ranges from religious to the historical to the speculative, even when the book read is precisely the same. In an ideal day, some time is always spent arguing genre and literature and interpretation of the world. Given this, why aren’t Star Wars t-shirts compulsory Jewish attire? (This is one of the Ten Tangled Questions of Judaism.)
(ii) “Let’s do no housework” is canonically Jewish – if it’s possible that anything’s canonically Jewish, given that the Canon refers to Christianity. It just looks made up.

(b) No zombies. No zombie sheep. They belong to other people’s stories. No vampires, either, not even sparkly ones. Our stories lack these things. Deal with it.

(3) To visualise this, think of scraggy sheep (iii). Dismiss all merinos from your minds. A modern merino would be caught up by a tangle of brambles and might die of thirst or be turned into lamb chops. Ancient Jewish stories do not encourage trapping sheep in tangles of brambles. With ancient scraggy sheep, the wool comes off in tatters anyway. It really can be collected from bushes in the wilderness. If you live in the Canberra region and want to meet the descendent of such a sheep, visit Mountain Creek Farm. They also had a Wessex saddleback pig called Beyonce, but they ate her.
(iii) Horror writer friends, I need scraggy zombie sheep in a story, forthwith. Not a Jewish story though, for it would clash profoundly with my sense of kashruth.

(4) You are advised to turn your spellcheck off at this point. The MacAfees were not major players in ancient Jewish history.

(c) I’m only apologising so that I can put another footnote in. I shall not mention sheep in this one.
(iv) not even zombie sheep.

(d) Is Karl Marx’s history any less troublesome in Spanish translation? Inquiring minds need to know. Maybe only one inquiring mind. And maybe the need is more a vague and passing curiosity.

(e) These days I suspect that keeping strict kosher is its own variety of martyrdom, but that’s because I’ve developed bad habits. If this were truly a spec fic story, I would have developed bad hobbits, rather than refusing to check cheese labels for the type of rennet. Bad hobbits are a lot more interesting than cheese labels. JRRT’s missing tales.
(v) And suddenly this is topical. I shall watch to make sure that there is at least one bad hobbit in the forthcoming film. If there isn’t, I shall sic zombie sheep onto the makers thereof. They’ll go nicely with those strange rabbits in the first Jackson Hobbit film.

(5) Scraggy sheep!

(6) The hiding in the wilderness is where the cloaks came in. Public nakedness is seldom encouraged in Judaism. No, this footnote is not in the right place. The scraggy sheep got in the way.
(vi) But not the zombie sheep, for their wool is of a different quality entirely.

(7) I know, I told you a few lines ago. This system of footnotes makes a few lines seem like a long time. Someone should study it to see if footnotes really slow time down or if they just confuse people.

(f) I haven’t met anyone who has evidence of pigs, just of defilement, so it might have been hobbits. Bad hobbits and their bad habits. There’s an academic paper in that.

(8) For Christians, extra virgin olive oil was probably the standard in the early days. This means that Mary cooked with…no, I’m not going there.

(8a)* These days most of us say “A great miracle happened there.” If you live in Israel you get to celebrate locally, though, and use the words of the ancients. That reminds me, one day I must try making the alcohol of the ancients. My family liqueurs went down very well last year and that was only the alcohol-of-the-near-moderns. Imagine how good it can get with older drinks!

*This footnote is 8a because otherwise it would be 9 and Chanukah only has 8 nights. My other option was to create 36 footnotes or 64 footnotes, or… let’s stick with 8a.
(vi) and my footnotes and the footnotes of my footnotes have officially run out of footnotes.





Of course, Chanukah is a mainstream Australian festival. Writers have an obligation to churn out popular pieces, usually following the most widespread narrative (the one you just read, which is a tad antiquated now and which belongs to the borderline period when Chanukah could be celebrated openly but before it became – to quote the advertisers – everyone’s favourite Australian holiday). Not all of the writers enjoy those never-ending assignments on a festival that belongs to a religion other than their own. For example, this just crossed my desk:



Re: Insights into Everyone’s Favourite Festival

I know you thought this assignment would be a delightful one, but I’m afraid I have to refuse it.

I know it’s too late for you to assign it to anyone else, but you must know that no-one’s going to read it anyway. Christmas ought to be the season (and most people get through December and January without even knowing it exists – damned philistines), not this trumped up Jewish thing which I experience mainly through my neighbour’s experiments in frying. I’m not Jewish, and you ought not make me suffer so.

My neighour should lay off, too. I can take canned versions of Dreidl, Dreidl (I heard the chipmunk version four times when I popped out to buy milk – I have come to dread dreidls) and I can replace Ma’ot tsur with my own Rock of Ages (singing in my mind, because it wouldn’t do to offend the masses) but I’m not sure I can take any more of my neighbour’s cooking.

She fried a turducken last week and still pops around every day with parcels. Eventually she thankfully ran out of deep-fried turducken and so she fried chocolate yesterday, with eleven different herbs and spices and a breadcrumb coating (Kentucky fried chocolate, she named it, but I can guarantee you that no-one fries chocolate in Kentucky) and yesterday she pulled eight (apparently random) items from her pantry and refrigerator and has just given me a basket of what she claims to be her ‘Special Milchig Chanukah Selection.’ The basket is stained with grease and so is the list that tells me what’s what. I would tell her what’s what if I dared, but instead I’m waiting for rubbish collection to take away the dregs of her pantry. She has fried me olives, cream cheese, pickled cucumbers, chickpeas, acidophilus capsules, Graham crackers, avocado dip (which she kindly notes is past its use-by date) and pistachio nuts in their shell.

Excuse me, but there’s someone at the door.

It’s my neighbour again. She explained that I needed a non-dairy basket, since it’s the last day. It’s apparently traditional. Now I have chicken drumsticks, duck, roast turkey (that turkducken in disguise), egg, chicken salami, beef strips, kangaroo meatballs and emu pastrami, all of which will grace my rubbish bin just as soon as I can waddle out the door. Fried emu pastrami is a culinary abomination.

I wish Australia were one of those countries where Jews were in such a minority that she didn’t dare to be neighbourly in this way. Or to fry emu pastrami.

None of this is why I can’t write you that article. The truth is that I’ve developed a phobia of sheep.

I’ve applied for a job in Antarctica (where the only sheep are for eating or wearing) but until that comes through, I need to avoid sheep in all their manifestations for the sake of my mental health. I especially need to avoid zombie sheep which, I understand, are a special element of the bush Chanukah. I could move to the US, where they never developed the celebration to the extent of smearing blood over the mouth of fake sheep; they’re more interested in presents than baskets of fried foods, too. I know all this because I did my research before starting this email to you.

I did my research and the zombie sheep gave me nightmares and I promptly applied for that job in Antarctica. I didn’t apply for the US job, for they have sheep in the US (just not zombie sheep). I found an excellent article proving that Jews spoke Spanish before they spoke Hebrew and that modern Jewish footnotes came from Medieval systems of glossing.

It would have been a very impressive article. I would have delved into how one maintains the virginity of olive oil in a corrupt society and the history of the move of the Melbourne Cup until it reached its current date of the first Tuesday in Chanukah. I was researching the Ten Tangled Questions of Judaism when I discovered that three of them have sheep lurking behind their innocent faces and the sheep and the fried food overwhelmed me and it’s all too much and you can just manage without “Insights into Everyone’s Favourite Festival” this year.

To appease you, I attach the final of my story into the bad habits of hobbits. I found some eye-opening behaviour in the hobbit community, I can tell you. I have another version I can send, if you want, but it will only do if we have a sealed section this month and if our legal advisor thinks the hobbits won’t sue. It’s accurate, but the little ones cultivate such a prissy public image that I’m not certain how they’ll react to certain elements of their private lives being revealed. One of the elements I left out of even the racy version was their Chanukah habits. Let me just say (without going into detail) that hobbits fry more than mushrooms for the festival. They are genuinely terrifying.

There are no hobbits in Antarctica, are there? I need to move there permanently.


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