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Jewesses with Attitude

Rosa Parks and Hanukkah: Why Ignorance Isn't Always Bliss

On the Thursday night before Hanukkah began, I attended an event called A Sip of Eser, an introductory session to the ten-part young adult learning program Eser (meaning 10) run by Hebrew College in nearby Newton, MA. Amidst the tumult of a Boston bar, and alongside several dozen people I had never met, I heard rabbinical student, Seth Wax, tell a Hanukkah story none of us had ever heard.

In Hebrew school we learned that Antiochus—an evil king—banned Jews from practicing their religion, defiled the Temple, and generally made life terrible for the Jews. Then, the Maccabees, led by Judah, valiantly waged war on their oppressors and won, miraculously reclaiming the Temple and keeping the lamp lit for eight nights.

The story that Seth told us, one that was also told by David Brooks in a 2009 New York Times column, went a little differently. In this version, the Jews were living quite happily, reaping the benefits of living in the strong, culturally rich, and reason-driven empire created by Alexander the Great. For the most part, the Hellenist rulers respected local religions languages and traditions.

However, in the Seleucid Dynasty, a crazy and evil king, Antiochus—turns out the story I learned as a kid got that part right—began to oppress the Jews, outlawing Jewish practices on penalty of death. A small, radical faction of rebels began to form. One day, one of them—Judah's father Mattathias—saw a Jew making a sacrifice at a Greek altar; he flew into a rage, killing the man. This is the event that sparked the Maccabean revolt: a Jew killing another Jew. From there, the story continues as you probably know it until the Maccabees win the war.

But there’s more: I also never learned that after their victory, the Maccabees (as Brooks writes) "became religious oppressors themselves," even performing forced circumcisions on Jews who were uncircumcised. Under Maccabean rule, Brooks asserts, "practice stagnated" and "scholarship withered."

It's pretty clear to me why we were never taught this story as kids. It certainly doesn't make the Jews look good, and it complicates the narrative in an uncomfortable way. Educators who want students to love Judaism or parents who struggle with their own Jewish beliefs may have a difficult time trying to explain the full story to children (especially when other families are celebrating Christmas).

However, the story raises a lot of important questions that I have struggled with on my own Jewish journey: How should Jews negotiate the balance between religious and cultural continuity and embracing and accepting diversity? What does it mean to be Jewish? Who decides who is Jewish, or who isn’t Jewish enough? How do I live peaceably with neighbors who have beliefs that are radically different from my own? I can’t help feeling that Hanukkah represents a real missed opportunity for American Jews.

Rosa Parks
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Rosa Parks's arrest.
Photo by kidatocha via Flickr

I said good-bye to my new friends and left the bar wondering how I had never heard this side of the Hanukkah story before. As I waited for the bus, I thumbed through my Facebook newsfeed on my phone and, suddenly a headline caught my eye: It's Time to Free Rosa Parks from the Bus. This article by historian Danielle McGuire discusses an essay written by Rosa Parks that was only made public last year. In it, Parks describes a "near-rape" by a white man. While some people have claimed it is a work of fiction and others say that it is “semi-autobiographical,” McGuire asserts that it is in fact a personal account that sheds light on the true Rosa Parks—not the grossly simplified character we learned about in school during Black History Month.

While Parks certainly played an important role in igniting the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s, she worked as an activist for years before (and after) that fateful bus ride in Montgomery. She was involved in the defense of the Scottsboro Boys and was a key investigator in the Recy Taylor case. She served as an NAACP secretary, collecting affidavits from victims of racism and sexism. In the years following the bus boycott, McGuire writes, Parks “fought for open housing and against police brutality, railed against the war in Vietnam, and campaigned for George McGovern.”

As McGuire sees it, Parks has been "imprisoned" by the story we all know about a "quiet but courageous woman, whose humble righteousness shamed America into doing what was right." Instead, McGuire argues, that this essay (lost for years and questioned as a fake when it was found) contextualizes Parks’ true legacy as a militant activist committed to a lifelong "resistance to the inhumanity of racism and sexism."

I understand why this more complicated narrative of Rosa Parks’ life, like the untold story of Hanukkah, may be difficult to teach. I understand why it is easier to remember the Civil Rights Movement as a series of high profile sit-ins and boycotts, rather than to recognize the darker, more intimate struggles of individual men and women. But to what end and at what cost?

Hilary Leila Krieger touched on this duality in her recent New York Times Op-Ed piece about the true meaning of Hanukkah, writing, “While elevating Hanukkah does a lot of good for children’s morale, ignoring or sanitizing its historical basis does a great disservice to the Jewish past and present.”

It is important to celebrate history, to commemorate the battles large and small, ancient and recent that we have waged and won. But children grow into adults, and those adults become parents. Over time, the stories we tell one another become our history. As teachers, as parents, as older siblings or as camp counselors, we must strive to pass on stories that are deep, complex, and difficult. These are the stories that exemplify our true human experience. These tales allow us to connect to real people, rather than to passively observe them as characters in a far-away time or place. These stories—the story of Hanukkah rooted in Jewish religious extremism and of a civil rights hero’s lifelong dedication to victims of sexual violence—challenge us to see ourselves as players in history and as links in a long, complicated legacy.


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Photo by Velo Steve via Flickr.

How to cite this page

Heisler , Etta King. "Rosa Parks and Hanukkah: Why Ignorance Isn't Always Bliss." 11 December 2012. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on January 17, 2017) <>.


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