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Hanukkah’s penumbra

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Last December, I received an email from a close friend, a woman active in her synagogue, who wrote: “I’ve finally gotten over wanting to be Christian, but I still want to wake on a December morning to a pile of presents.”

I empathize. The approaching holidays always give me pause. Hanukkah seems like the season’s poor relative knocking on the door without much more to offer than a few candles, and potato latkes or pancakes.

Of course, Hanukkah also offers us the opportunity to reflect on the meaning of materialism and spirituality, of plenitude and austerity, of belief and doubt, and on the fact that most of us spend our time negotiating the high wire that’s strung between these poles. I used to think religion was about finding answers, but now I think it’s about asking questions-about learning to be comfortable with doubt, of finding ways to transmute doubt into a creative rather than a crippling presence.

It’s hard to live with doubt and ambivalence in the everyday world. In order to accomplish our busy schedules we have to be assertive, and act as if we know the answers. Holidays, and ritual celebrations-whether weekly, yearly, or once-in-a-lifetime rites of passage-allow us to excuse ourselves from linear time and step onto a balcony, or into a little shack that I envision as a sukkah, where we entertain ambivalence. If genius is the ability to hold two contradictory ideas in your head at once, then celebrating ritual makes us geniuses, because we are thinking about paradox: Hanukkahs past present and future, about growing old and staying young, about lighting candles and anticipating darkness, being together and being alone with God.

It’s a mistake, though, to equate ritual with routine. Ritual is rooted in our paradoxical need for both consistency and adaptability; it asks us to not only preserve that which shouldn’t change from year to year, but also to acknowledge all that has changed. And once we recognize this, the holiday comes alive. I realized recently that my entire concept of Hanukkah has undergone several huge shifts.

When I was a girl I concentrated on the miracle associated with Hanukkah-how the oil could last for eight days instead of just one. When I had my own children, and moved to a non-Jewish community, I reflected more on the political meaning of the holiday, and on the power of conviction in the face of long odds.

My husband and I have also experimented with gift giving which can be as spiritual a part of the holiday as lighting the candles. When my sons were little, we gave them one gift a night. Then we began to notice that they cared only about presents, and not about the holiday, so we gave them all their presents on the first night. Then we tried giving them one big gift. I hope we are teaching them that ritual means experimentation. Ritual challenges us to bravely reinvent, to reconstruct, rather than proceed as usual.

For in truth, a ritual is less an event than a process. Hanukkah, for example, begins the first moment, sometime in late fall, when you ask yourself: “I wonder when Hanukkah comes this year?” Then the exhausting preparations start .You buy gifts, wrap them, schlep them to the post office, polish the menorah, grate the potatoes-and in the middle of straining the apple sauce or finding a gift for your child’s Hebrew school grab bag, you realize that you’re not preparing for Hanukkah, you’re celebrating it, right now. Ritual’s gifts are serendipitous, bestowed on us when we least expect them. The key to the treasure is the treasure, as my former writing teacher, John Barth, likes to say.

What’s our Jewish version of abundance? Not presents under the tree. We share the strength of our convictions; a certain slant of understanding; a gift for empathy, the capacity to understand, to walk in another’s shoes, to welcome strangers, to make a home wherever we find ourselves and somehow, against all odds, fill it with light which seems on the verge of extinguishing itself, but never does. These gifts can’t be wrapped up and placed under a tree, but they are real, and portable, and they illumine our way.

To you and yours, happy Hanukkah, one filled with light and song, one that’s different and ever the same.

Roberta Israeloff’s monthly column, Traveling Light appears on Jewish Family & Life! -www.jewishfamily.com. Her books include: Kindling the Flame: Reflections on Ritual, Faith and Family and Lost and Found: A Woman Revisits Eighth Grade. She lives on Long Island, New York with her husband and two sons.

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