This time of year makes me think back to perhaps my first encounter with religious history. Of course, there had been the unspoken rituals handed down in my family for at least a decade or two from which I had imbibed unexplicated lessons, but the first time it all came out in the open, as I recall it (or as my internal Talmudic fabulist scribe chooses to arrange it for maximum moral value), I was, at the age of seven or eight, given a book: The Story of Hanukkah.
Probably a publication of the Golden Books division of Simon & Schuster, source of much of my childhood entertainment (some of their executives were patients of my father's, I believe), it was a very large book with big illustrations and it told the story you all know: the Jews were conquered by nasty Greeks who ordered them to bow down to Greek idols; they resisted; they were oppressed; five brothers named Maccabee led a revolt; took the Temple; couldn't find enough consecrated oil for the proper ritual; a miracle occurred. This was followed by the menorah, the dreidel and other customs later spoofed on South Park. The Hanukkah Bush was not mentioned – just as well, since my parents had a Christmas Tree and called it that, and its colors and lights thrilled me from the first. I never questioned why my grandparents did not have such trees – they lived in Manhattan, in apartments; we lived in New Rochelle, in a house. People who lived in apartments did not have trees; people who lived in houses had children and trees. The logic was clear.
The book told a subtler story, or many stories. Who were these thriftless people with their Temple that didn't have storage space for more than one tiny bottle of oil? Who were the Greeks and what were they doing out of Greece? Who were those annoying kids willing to be put to death rather than pray to an idol, and why was it even an issue? Who were these rather ruthless Maccabees? (The later history of the dynasty was, mercifully, omitted: a bloody bunch.) Does the establishment of a holiday that is all about light, light returning ceremoniously, night by night, at precisely the Winter Solstice, not seem awfully pagan, awfully typical of earth-based rituals throughout the northern hemisphere? (It was ten years or more before I got around to asking that question.) Was the whole Hanukkah business, complete with bush and presents and carols (dear heavens! yes – even in high school choir – no doubt inevitable in so Jewish a suburb as New Rochelle), not a pasty me-too imitation of the great American consumerist Christmas?
My mother said this, early and often – she still does. When she was a child, Hanukkah was almost unheard of, and she had watched its growth and emulation of Currier & Ives custom with disquiet and contempt – but then, when she was a child, there had not been any recent attempt to wipe Judaism off the earth, and that event certainly had something to do with the revived and modernized, Second Coming as it were, of Hanukkah after the war.
So I got the book, and though puzzled, devoured it, especially noting the illustrations (which ancient Jewry so wisely forbade in their books): a bunch of muscular but slovenly men attacking a bunch of rather stiff centurion types, breaking into the Temple precincts, throwing down and demolishing statues of a rather pretty lady with a helmet on her head.
My response was instantaneous: Who was the pretty lady, and why would anyone break her statue? (Only much later did I discover that statues of her can be found all over New York – her family and friends too. I guess the Maccabees didn't get them all.)
Kiddie though I was, I had already been taken by my grandmothers, with great solemnity, in familial rite, to enormous, pervasively silent temple-type buildings filled with wonders and with echoes and with a great sense of awe and tradition. The Met Museum, for instance, was a palace and a temple, and there are lots of helmeted ladies there. (Also naughty pictures of ladies with nothing on at all, but I don't remember visiting those galleries. I wasn't much of one for painting till I was about 20, actually.) (There were also statues of men wearing nothing at all, and I knew I shouldn't look at certain parts of their bodies, but no doubt because of my childish lack of height, I did tend to stare. Being uncut, they didn't look at all like mine.)
Somehow I knew that it was wicked – wicked for those brutal men to knock down statues of that lovely lady. Somehow the book made me curious about her, and her rites, and the Greeks who loved her if not wisely perhaps too well. From my parents and grandparents, I had already imbibed the family religion: beautiful objects should be preserved and gazed at, appreciated and understood, shared with the world. Privately, of course, I wanted to keep them to myself – not the Met, which is a bit unwieldy, but I wanted the whole Cloisters all to myself, and maybe the Frick as well. But I didn't get them, either one, and regular access seemed the next best thing.
My family faith was in the works of human art – or so it seemed to me. The manifestations of all men and women, the arts that inspire and never inflict harm, the statues and buildings and paintings and (later) books and songs and dramas, that we all of us share, that cannot replace themselves and depend on us for their creation and preservation and glory: worshipful as evidence of the glory of human mind and skill, ranking us with the creation of nature itself (if it was created). Nature tends to have better taste, less subject to fashion. That is how one knows it is above art. But by my personal faith, it is possible to worship both. Both are worshipful, and worthy.
Worship is not required by deities; they don't need it. It's good for us, and it's good for nature and for works of art, because the worship inspires us to preserve them. But the deities can get along without it. They did before (if they're real); they will when we're gone.
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