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Reflections on Chanukah

The Hebrew month of Kislev is called the Month of Glory and Heroism. Long before the 25th day of the month, when Chanukah, the Festival of Lights begins, the theme of heroism permeates our days. On one Chanukah, our local community center arranged for a very special evening remembering the Operation at Entebbe in 1976, when an Israeli airplane was hijacked and taken to Uganda. A woman, in her 70’s, spoke of her experiences as a passenger on that airplane. She shared how she, her husband, her child, and all the Jews on the airplane, were witness to a modern-day-miracle, as the Israeli army came and rescued them and brought them home to Israel. One of the pilot navigators on the rescue mission also spoke. He brought tears to my eyes when he said that the world knew that these passengers were hijacked because they were Jews, but it was just as obvious to the Israeli army that there was no doubt they were going to go and save them, for the same reason— that they were Jews. It was an inspiring lecture.

I attended another emotional evening in my synagogue when Chagit Rein shared her own very moving story. She is a neighbor, living in Karnei Shomron. She told the story of her son, B’naya whose name literally means “son of G-d” — who was killed in the Second Lebanon War. The woman was awe-inspiring. Her faith in G-d, her belief that Israel belongs to the Jewish people and that everything must be done to protect it, even if it means giving up a son to the cause, left us all astounded at her strength.

In Israel, if a child is killed in a war or an act of terror, the parents have to sign a special authorization for the other siblings to serve in a combat unit. Barring parental permission, the other siblings will serve in non-combat units so as not to be placed in danger. Chagit told us how, just days after the funeral of B’naya, her next son came to her and said, “Ima (Mom), you realize you’re going to have to sign to give me permission to serve in a combat unit because I’m going!” She turned to him and said, “We are not the ones who decide. Only G-d has the power to make decrees. Of course you will serve.” Not long afterwards, he fought in Operation Cast Lead in Gaza.

The history of the heroism of Chanukah, the Festival of Lights began over 2,300 years ago in the land of Judea. The Syrian king, Antiochus tried to root out the individualism of the Jews by suppressing their laws and traditions. He ordered the Jewish people to reject their G-d, their religion, their customs and their beliefs, under penalty of death, and to worship the Greek gods. Thousands of Jews were killed as they sacrificed their lives in the name of G-d. Mathias of Modiin, the High Priest, and his courageous sons, rallied the people with his famous cry: “Whoever is for G-d is with me!” Mathias formed an army to destroy pagan altars and to fight the enemy troops. Though the Syrians were greater in number, more powerful and more advanced in weaponry, the Jews, with G-d fighting for them, drove the Syrians out of Israel and reclaimed the Temple in Jerusalem.

When the Jews liberated Jerusalem, they entered the Temple and found it desecrated by Greek statues and idols. Heartbroken, they lovingly cleaned their beloved Temple. On the 25th day of Kislev, 3622, when they were ready to rededicate their Temple and light the Menorah, they could only find a small jug of pure olive oil still bearing the seal of the High Priest. There was only enough oil to light the menorah for one day. They lit the menorah and a miracle occurred — the tiny amount of oil stayed lit and continued to burn for eight days. Chanukah, meaning rededication, commemorates the miracle of the oil as we light our menorahs, each night for eight days.

Jewish holidays start at nightfall. On the day before the first lighting ceremony, we reorganize the entire living room. The lighting of the Menorah is supposed to be a public ritual, one that is performed including as many people as possible in each home. We set up the menorahs in the front window, so that all passersby can see our candles. In essence, we are publicizing G-d’s miracle to the Jewish people – we declare to the world that we are a light to the nations and our flame will never die. In our house we drag the couch away from the front bay window, pile up a few bricks from our garden for height, place the piano bench on top, cover the whole contraption with silver foil and a tablecloth to make it look festive, and set up our menorahs. We take turns lighting the candles and reciting the blessings. Everyone takes pride in my grandson Amit’s attempts at pronouncing all the words correctly. The other children all vie for the chance to be the one to guide his little hands as he ecstatically lights his menorah. My grandson, Achiya, is too young, but he is hypnotized by all the dancing flames and the light is reflected in the window and in his big brown eyes.

Our favorite menorah is one of our own creation. We take long fluted champagne glasses, half fill them with water and then color the water in each one with different colors, using food coloring, tea bags, even ink from old magic markers! Then the rest of the glass is filled with olive oil and in each one we place a floating wick. We also have an assortment of menorahs that the kids made when they were in kindergarten. We still use them and light them with colored candles. They get more coated with colored wax as each year passes.

One year we felt especially blessed. We had our own olive tree growing in the backyard, but had never taken advantage of it. Once one of Avigayil’s friends who lives in the town of Itamar, right outside Shechem, was visiting and noticed our tree. She mentioned there was a professional olive press in her neighborhood and if we gave her a batch of olives, she’d get us our oil. So my husband Kuti and the three boys went to work. They laid down sheets and tablecloths on the grass and with the aid of ladders, brooms and mops, started beating the tree as the precious green fruit fell abundantly to the ground. We gathered buckets full of the crop, gave it to our messenger and later received a large jug of our very own, home-grown olive oil to fulfill the holiday tradition!

When we have finished lighting the candles, we all sit on the living room couches, squeezed cozily together, some of us perched on the couch arms, some on laps, and we sing the holiday hymn, “Maoz Tzur”- Mighty Rock of Salvation. It is a timeless hymn of praise to G-d for saving us, generation after generation, from those who wished to abolish us. I sigh to myself thinking over Israel’s past years and realizing that our struggle is not over. I have a hard time singing the last stanza, as tears clog my throat. “Reveal Your holy arm and bring close the end for salvation. Avenge the vengeance of Your servant’s blood from the wicked nations. For the deliverance is long in coming for us, and there is no end to these days of evil.”

I’m brought out of my reverie as everyone laughingly slows down their singing in an exaggerated way to allow Atara to accompany us on the piano. Soon, I slide onto the piano bench and start playing some of the holiday favorites. Then everyone asks my grandson Amit to sing a song from his Chanukah party. He grabs his cardboard candle crown, places it rakishly on his head and sings his favorite song: “We have come to chase away the darkness; because we have light in our hands. Everyone has a small spark, but together we are a powerful light!” I remember watching my kids sing that very song at their parties. Watching 30 four-year-olds dancing around singing these words, you start believing that our children are the answer. They will chase away the darkness. Our light will not be extinguished.

Everyone knows that after the lighting and singing comes present giving, but still they sit patiently! Chanukah for me starts long before the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev. For months before Chanukah, I start buying gifts, trying to keep my family in mind as I browse through stores or do my errands. Every time I find something– the type of hair clip that Atara likes for her full head of long curls or the kind of marbles that Elitzur just lost at school– I buy them and store them away in my closet. Every time someone mentions something that triggers an idea for me for what I could buy for them– I run out to buy it. I keep lists to make sure I have enough things to give everyone. I love giving presents! It is definitely better to give than to receive. As I wrap each little silly item I picture the person unwrapping it, his eyes lighting up with pleasure. When the girls were little I got away with a fresh package of crayons or a new dress for their Barbies. So it requires a bit more thought because I don’t believe in buying big. I would like to continue the tradition my family had when I was growing up of getting something small every night of the eight days of Chanukah.

But I admit it gets a bit time consuming, not to mention expensive, to buy the seven kids an assortment of gifts. And now, with three sons-in-law and two grandchildren, the project becomes huge! So we have started a new tradition. A month before Chanukah we put folded papers with the names of everyone in the family in a bag and everyone picks out one name. The idea is to keep the name a secret and to think of something creative that specifically fits the person you received. At our family Chanukah party, we take turns and everyone finds out who bought their gift and there’s lots of wrapping paper and laughter and love and hugs in the room.

Another fun way of commemorating the miracle of the oil is in the foods we eat! In Israel, “sufganiyot”, or plump, jelly-filled, sugar-coated fried donuts, are sold everywhere, for a month before the holiday even begins! They are served at the kids’ Chanukah school plays, Chanukah office parties, and all the holiday get-togethers. It’s not unusual to see everyone, young and old alike, with powdered sugar faces and cheeks sticky with raspberry jelly. In my family, though, we prefer deep fried potato “latkes”- potato pancakes, a tradition originating in Eastern Europe. Years ago, I happily handed over the tradition of preparing this delicacy to my eldest, Avigayil. My grandmother would have been proud to see how she peels the potatoes perfectly clean, leaving them soaking in a bowl of water as she first clears the counters, then settles her little brothers around the kitchen table to “help” her with the next part. No food processor for us! Everyone takes turns grating the potatoes and onions, adding the beaten eggs, salt and oil. Then with a generous amount of oil bubbling in a large frying pan, she drops mounds of batter. Everyone waits for them to sizzle to a wonderful brown. She then flips them to the other side and scoops them out to the outstretched greasy hands waiting with their plates for a first taste.

Each year, on one night of Chanukah, our community has its annual candle lighting outside our community center. Families, youth groups, senior citizens and babies bundle up for the celebration. Soldiers from the local army bases are invited. The municipality sets up a massive menorah made up of huge, sand-filled pails with kerosene-soaked wicks, meant to be large enough to be seen from miles away. We want everyone driving by to know we love our soldiers. And we do. They’re our boys – our sons, our brothers, our boyfriends and our husbands, and our army is just that. Ours. So we meet with them every Chanukah to show our gratitude. Someone brings a keyboard and after the blessings are said over the candles some impromptu singing and dancing take place. The children are put in charge of walking around with cartons of fresh “sufganiyot” and hand everyone the holiday treat.

Family traditions are wonderful to keep and new ones are glorious to establish. Several years ago my girls decided to start decorating the front window with a verse about the holiday’s theme of light. Sometimes it’s a verse from the Scriptures, sometimes from our Prayer Book and sometimes it’s even a meaningful line from a popular song. Large, visible block letters are cut out from construction paper and taped on the glass, our message purposely facing the street to inspire and bless those who pass. One year we took a verse from the liturgy of the Morning Prayer Service: “A new light has shone over Zion and may we merit its light!” Another year my kids decided they liked the line from the anthem of Israel’s religious Zionist youth movement: “Let us spread the great light—the light of the Torah.” We once took a verse from Proverbs: “For the commandment is a lamp and the teaching of the Torah a light.” One I especially loved comes from the silent prayer a mother utters as she lights the Shabbat candles on Friday night. It is part of her hopes and prayers for her children…the hope that they will grow to be worthy, to be true children of G-d. It is: “May they light the world with Torah and good deeds.” Another of my favorites that we’ve used in the past is from Isaiah:“Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you.” I think of the continuation, two verses later. “Nations will come to your light and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” Amen.

Shira Schwartz
CFOIC Heartland