There’s a stunning verse in the Book of Proverbs — “The lamp of God is the soul of man” (20: 27) — that I think about a lot in connection with Chanukah. After all, the holiday is called the Festival of Lights, and we are obligated to publicize the miracle of the oil lasting for eight days by kindling our menorahs where passersby can see the flames.
Chanukah is also a chance to come in from the cold on these long winter nights, to reflect inward and find the warmth and the light, the goodness and the godliness, within ourselves. But it’s imperative that we share that light, or publicize it, if you will, in a world that seems to darken with each passing news cycle.
When I spoke last year at a local synagogue before the holiday, I stressed that this task is so important we need to remind ourselves of it at every turn. It’s about our spiritual health, about standing up for justice and the well-being of our community and society at large, and about being proud, kind Jews who remember our heritage and the lessons of our history. I concluded my talk by suggesting that we write “Be a light!” on Post-It notes and stick them all over our homes as prompts.
I prepared 20 notes and strategically positioned them on places like the bathroom mirror, my laptop, and the dashboard of my car. I chose to keep them up after Chanukah, though they fell off one by one until only the note on our front door remained, where it greeted our Shabbat guests and the FedEx guy alike. It made a great conversation starter. Folks wanted to know its meaning and I was happy to enlighten them.
Last Tuesday, I found that note on the ground, caught in a pile of wet leaves that had gathered at the bottom of our front steps. I heaved a sigh of disappointment until I did the math, grateful this “Be a Light!” had stayed up for a full year.
News of the shooting at the kosher market in Jersey City soon punctured my afternoon, followed days later by word of the desecration of the Nessah Synagogue in Los Angeles. I forgot entirely about Post-It notes and Chanukah, thinking instead about how anti-Semitism is coming at us from all sides — not only globally, but in America, too. The latest reminders that we are no longer as invulnerable here as we once believed.
Chanukah, I think, is arriving at just the right moment. Still, there’s all the usual chatter about how, as a minor holiday in the hierarchy of Jewish festivals, it doesn’t merit the blockbuster status it has attained over time; how Chanukah was elevated to put it on equal footing with Christmas and invest the Jewish community in the consumerism that has come to define this time of year for everyone. But it seems to me that we need Chanukah’s outsize presence, as well as its story of Jewish strength, light, and redemption, more than ever.
Chanukah here wasn’t always this way, as Diane Ashton writes in her book “Hanukkah in America: A History,” nor was it always so easy to be Jewish in this country. Holiday preparations took serious advance planning to secure the necessary supplies, ritual items, and kosher food, nothing like our last-minute runs to ShopRite. Especially outside the big cities, we faced enormous challenges as a small Jewish minority upon whom there was great pressure to assimilate into the predominant Christian culture.
In 1840, Penina Moïse, one of the best-known poets of her day, raised her voice — and her pen — to counter that pressure. She wrote a now little-known Chanukah hymn that begins: “Great Arbiter of human fate, whose glory ne’er decays;/to Thee alone we dedicate the song and soul of praise.” It became a favorite among American Jews for a century, inspiring her co-religionists to see the holiday as an opportunity to reaffirm their commitment to Judaism at a time when it wasn’t easy to do so.
I only learned about Moïse recently, but her message resonates deeply with me across time. And it syncs with what the ancient rabbis who created the festival of Chanukah wanted us to do each year when the holiday rolls around: to tell the world who we are, that we are proud of our heritage, our history and our relationship with God.
With that in mind, I have taken out my pen. I haven’t written a hymn, but I’ve got a stack of Post-It notes with “Be a light!” on them that I’ll place throughout the house before we light the first candle. And though I tremble inside when I consider the uncertainty of our future, I have hope that the lamp is still on, and I know it’s up to us to keep it burning.
Merri Ukraincik, a regular contributor to this space, is a columnist for the New Jersey Jewish News. Follow her at merriukraincik.com.
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