We at the Courier had hoped that Rabbi Marcelo Kormis of Congregation Beth-El in Fairfield would be providing a spiritual and scholarly message about Hanukkah, which begins at sundown tonight, but sadly he is in Chile attending to his father who is very ill. He and his family are in our Hanukkah prayers tonight.
Instead, alas, a personal Hanukkah message is coming from me about the significance of the holiday and how our family observes it. I should note that Hanukkah has multiple spellings, so if readers prefer Chanukah or any other variations, you have my apologies.
To begin, my family is a mix of Jews and Catholics, and our larger family includes Lutherans and Presbyterians. Bottom line: We have privileges to celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas, which makes the month of December a very happy one at our house.
In anticipation of lighting the first candle tonight, I did a little homework and discovered how little I really know about Hanukkah (English translation: dedication) other than that it commemorates the rededication of the Second Temple of Jerusalem which the Macceabean Jews fought hard and won back from the powerful Syrian army in approximately 165 BCE. In brief, the holiday symbolizes freedom from religious oppression.
When the temple was rededicated, there was only enough oil (olive oil, I just found out) to illuminate the temple’s lamp stand, or menorah, for one night, but miraculously, the oil lasted eight nights, allowing enough time to obtain fresh supplies. Hence we light eight candles to acknowledge God’s miracle. There is a more detailed description of the origins and newer Hanukkah traditions found here: https://www.history.com/topics/holidays/hanukkah
To my surprise, but not to those familiar with John 10:22, Jesus was in Jerusalem and observed the rededication. “It was now winter, and Jesus was in Jerusalem at the time of Hanukkah, the Festival of Dedication” (New Living Translation). Ecumenicalism has many rewards.
The subsequent ritual lighting of the menorah was not recognized as an official holiday for centuries. It assumed greater significance in modern history.
According to the My Jewish Learning website:
Hanukkah began to find new expression in the years leading up to the founding of the modern State of Israel. In the post-Holocaust world, Jews are acutely aware of the issues raised by Hanukkah: oppression, identity, religious freedom and expression, and the need to fight for national independence. Hanukkah has developed into a holiday rich with historical significance, physical and supernatural miracle narratives, and a dialogue with Jewish history.https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/hanukkah-history/
The strong symbolic observance of Hanukkah became something quite different in tone and meaning as Jews emigrated to America.
Jewish scholar Jonathan Sarna writes, “The driver behind this was that Christmas became increasingly central in 19th-century America, the day for giving gifts to children, eventually becoming a national holiday. As a result of all that, Hanukkah was infused with a vast new energy, in the hope that it might compete with Christmas or at least allow Jewish children to see that they are as fortunate as their Christian neighbors. Hanukkah grew in tandem with Christmas, and in many ways as a response to it.” https://www.brandeis.edu/now/2014/december/americanization-of-hanukkah.html
This of course underscores unity of thought in both Jews and Christians that religious holidays have become too commercialized. But that’s a topic for another time.
Our Hanukkah observance tonight will naturally be Zoomed so we and our kids and new grandchild can be as together as Covid permits. But what will not change are the seldom mentioned technical difficulties we encounter every year.
The twisted multicolored candles rarely fit properly in the holes of our menorah. They wobble and list this way and that. Sometimes there’s a rebel candle that doesn’t want to light or stand up straight. So we giggle. As someone who deeply believes in God’s forbearance, I do not feel this mocks the seriousness of the occasion. It humanizes it.
Singing and praying in unison is another of our challenges. As our small immediate family has only two who can sing on-key, notably our daughter-in-law Katie, whose lovely soprano voice graced her Lutheran choir growing up and now elevates our Hebrew songs. Our son, Brian, a bass, can carry a tune, only to be drowned out by my husband, Larry, a tone-deaf tenor and me, who blasts out a nasal honk I’ve learned to mute out of self-preservation.
But I believe God approves of our foibles, our giggles, our wandering minds and off-key singing during celebratory rituals because we are imperfect, but we are sharing love of God and love for each other.
In many Jewish families, menorahs are handed down from one generation to the next. Looking at the menorah evokes memories of Hanukkah’s past with love ones long gone. But watching young children and grandchildren light the candles projects us into a future aglow with aspirations.
There will be a time later during Yom Kippur for serious reflection and atonement. Tonight, and for seven nights more, our family will find reasons to rejoice.
Regardless of which holidays you will be celebrating this month, (not everyone gets a double dip) my Courier colleagues and I wish you safe and joyful holidays and peace and good health for many years to come.