Article – What Chanukah is like in 2010, Times Online

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 30 November 2010

As Britain’s 250,000 Jews mark the festival of Chanukah this week, they might reflect on how much Jewish life in the UK has changed in the last decade.

For much of the last fifty years, the marking of Chanukah carried a strong anti-integration message, shaped by concerns about the transmission of Jewish identity and culture within this small, largely anglicized community.  These concerns reflected a dramatic decrease in the number of identifying Jews in the UK in the second half of the twentieth century.  The response of community leadership, as a recent book, Turbulent Times: The British Jewish Community Today observes, was to operate a ‘strategy of insecurity’ in which the overriding priority was Jewish continuity.  The story of Chanukah fit perfectly into this pessimistic narrative.  It marks the successful revolt in 165 BCE of a small band of Jewish fighters against the religious oppression imposed by the mighty Seleucid Empire.  The story developed a modern moral, used as an example to caution against integration into secular society.  If Jews were willing to fight and die for the right to uphold Jewish practice and identity, the argument went, how can modern Jews be willing to give it up?  Why allow ourselves to be fully subsumed into secular society?  How can we give in to the internal threat of assimilation when the external threat is never far away?  The dislocating experience of keeping Chanukah while surrounded by the imagery of Christmas ensured the continued prominence of this message.

However, in recent years Chanukah for much of British Jewry has been transformed.  The terror of assimilation of earlier generations no longer reflects the reality.  This is particularly, but not exclusively, true in North West London where there is sufficient critical mass for a renaissance in Jewish life.  In Finchley and Golders Green, areas with a high concentration of Jews, synagogues from all denominations are experiencing growth in numbers and interest: attracting young families, teaching large numbers of adults and children, engaging in social action and interfaith dialogue, offering a variety of worship.  The Jewish community’s schools also continue to flourish, including a new cross-community secondary school that opened in September of this year.  Progressive synagogues have seen a growth in the number of non-Jews wishing to find out more about Jewish life with a view to conversion to Judaism.  Young Jews in their twenties and thirties, who were once considered a ‘missing’ generation, now study and pray together in synagogues and in independent groups around the country.

Real concerns do remain about future demography, and levels of anti-Semitism, but the Jewish community seems more at ease with itself, more comfortable with Jewish life in a secular world.  With this new comfort has come a willingness to question the truths of the past.  The renaissance in Jewish life has been accompanied by a new sophistication.  This applies even to the story of Chanukah itself.  According to the best-known version of the story, the rededication of the Temple after the military victory was accompanied by a miracle in which sufficient oil for one day kept burning for eight.  Yet increasingly, Jews are willing to question this version of events, recognising that the miracle of the oil is found first in the Babylonian Talmud, which is written down over 700 years after the events it describes.  Until that point, Chanukah is primarily a celebration of a military victory.  Similarly, while the heroes of the revolt overcame extraordinary odds in the face of oppression, we can now recognise that many of their successors became corrupt and that, ironically, it was they who oversaw a Hellenisation of Jewish culture.  In an age of insecurity, to recognise these truths was to risk undermining future Jewish life.  In an age of confidence it is possible to acknowledge these features of the story without risk to levels of commitment or spirituality.

As 2010 comes to a close, there is great cause for optimism about the future of Jewish life in the UK; the experiment of integrated Jewish life seems to be working.  Chanukah can move on from being a cautionary tale about survival.  No longer an opportunity for hand-wringing, it is now a genuine celebration of Jewish life in all its complexity.