“Once upon a time,” I told my 5-year-old son, “there was an evil emperor. (No, it doesn’t matter how he came to power, dear. The backstory is too convoluted and boring to repeat.) The evil emperor tried to force his ideology and faith on other people. A small group of valiant rebels refused, announcing that they were loyal to their faith, like their fathers before them. Though comically outnumbered, the rebels successfully overthrew the evil oppressor. Their victory celebration included lights, fire, and songs. Can you guess which story this is?”
In previous years, my son would have recognized this story in a heartbeat. “It’s the Hanukkah story!” he would have yelled, making us proud.
This year, however, he did not. “It’s the Star Wars story!” he shouted, jumping up and down in excitement. And then he added, his eyes huge and bright: “Is the new movie out yet?”
Ladies and gentlemen, Luke Skywalker stole Hanukkah’s thunder. After 2000 years of prominence in our children’s imagination, the story of the Maccabees has been deposed.
It all started innocently enough.
“Can I get a Star Wars Lego set for Hanukkah?” our son asked, and we were happy to acquiesce. Then, before we realized what was coming, Death Stars started appearing in his drawings of the Maccabees’ bows and arrows. Eventually, “Is the new movie out yet?” became the new, “Good morning.”
And I can’t say I’m surprised. Light sabers and space ships will do that to you. After all, as my son put it, “Hanukkah is the same every year, Ima. In Star Wars there are a lot of new things.”
At first, I was sad. Hanukkah is such a wonderful, rich holiday. It’s inspired generations of Jewish kids. I can imagine them, their fingers oily from latkes, their eyes alight with wonder. I want my son to delve into Hanukkah, too, and come out inspired and moved.
But then, I became excited.
The Jewish parents of different generations didn’t tell the story of Hanukkah in the same way. Every generation adapted Hanukkah to its own unique challenges. The early Zionists, for example, looked to the Maccabees for the boldness they sought, for the courage to fight. And the new Star Wars movie just gave me the opportunity to adapt Hanukkah to our unique challenge: the overflow of online information.
“Some parents,” I told my son, “don’t let their kids watch Star Wars. Can you guess why?”
We were sitting at the local coffee shop, surrounded by other doughnut-hunting families.
“They think it’s too scary,” he suggested, except that it sounded more like “thewiititoosary” through all that doughnut dough.
“Some probably do. But many people don’t let their kids watch such movies because they can teach them bad things.”
I let that, and the dough, sink in for a while.
“Why did the Maccabees fight against the hellenized Jews?” Weeks of recitations in kindergarten prepared my son to answer immediately: “Because they accepted Greek things, like idols and all that.”
“No,” I said, looking into my son’s very startled eyes. “The problem with the hellenized Jews wasn’t that they adopted Greek values. It was that they adopted the wrong Greek values.”
They could have adopted the Socratic paradox: One must know that one doesn’t know. They could have adopted Athenian standards and methods of learning, as did the Jewish sages of later generations. They could have adopted democratic values, as we do today.
Instead they chose to adopt hedonism, idol-worshiping, and the cult of the physical body.
When Matityahu and his sons refused to worship an idol, they chose the Jewish strand of their identity over the various values and pursuits of Hellenist culture. When they found one sealed flask of oil, they chose to use it and reject bountiful vessels of impure oil.
The Maccabees won, and we celebrate, because they chose the right options, instead of indulging on everything without discernment.
In our flat world of abundant information, endless entertainment, and social media, we need this message more than ever.
“So let’s learn from Hanukkah about Star Wars,” I suggested. “Hanukkah teaches us that we should use our minds and choose which ideas and values to accept. So, which of the ideas in Star Wars can we learn from? And what can we enjoy in the movie, but shouldn’t adopt in real life? If we can figure this out, we can watch the movies without learning bad things.”
We first discussed what to reject. In Star Wars, the deaths of millions of people in the destruction of the Death Stars goes by practically unnoticed. The victorious rebels celebrate their success, never pausing to acknowledge the dead. “This is not our way,” I told my son. “We sometimes have to kill, but it’s no cause for joy. In God’s words after the parting of the Red Sea: ‘My creations are drowning in the sea and you are singing?'”
Then we discussed positive messages. The Star Wars universe teaches that what goes around comes around. When individuals try to enslave others, their attempts become the tools of their own destruction. Leia kills Java the Hut with the very chain which he used to imprison her. Palpatine dies in the hands of the man he corrupted and used to take over the world.
We could come up with other examples, I thought, as my son picked crumbs of his plate. We probably will, in the future. Much to learn we still have. But for now, it’s enough that we discussed the need to distinguish between good and bad messages, and that my son gained some experience in doing so.
One day down the line, this experience might make the difference between mindless absorbing and critical thinking. It might mean that he won’t let movies or popular trends tell him what values are the values he is looking for. Instead, he will search his feelings and think for himself.
For now, this experience means that Star Wars and Hanukkah intertwined with each other, and Hanukkah became a wonderful, exciting, and relevant holiday once more.
“Let’s go home to watch ‘Episode 6’,” my son said.
And so we did.