Archive | December, 2011

What I Miss about Chanukah in Kansas

20 Dec

Our rabbis teach us that Chanukah candles are lit for the purpose of pirsumei nissahpublicizing the miracle.

Now although I am just about caught up on all four seasons of Mad Men, I do not consider myself to be a PR maven; nonetheless, it seems pretty clear to me that Donald Draper would not sign off on this publicity campaign. You see, as much as we might want the lighting of candles in late December to publicize the miracle of Chanukah, advertising of this sort only works if the people exposed to the “ad” can actually figure out what it means to say. Even those mysterious billboards that pop up on from time to time, the ones that grab your attention because they are so vague, only becoming meaningful once the final set of billboards comes along to replace them and deliver the message or make the sale.

It seems to me that a few candles lit in the window do not seem to make any point very clearly.

First of all, it’s dark out, and so candlelight is no big deal. I don’t “hear” the candles telling of the great victory of Maccabees over the Hellenists. They don’t seem to describe very well the victory of the few over the many, the righteous over the wicked. Frankly, without the benefit of the Talmudic account in tractate Shabbat of the miraculous cruise of oil, my 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8 candles don’t seem to shed light (sorry J) on that aspect of the miracle either.

In other words, if you didn’t pick up the story of Chanukah from your parents or your Hebrew School teacher, your average passerby probably has no idea what those candles really stand for. In fact, that might be why tradition teaches that one only fulfills the mitzvah of lighting only if another Jew (even a close family member)actually sees the candles burning.

OK, that makes sense….he’ll know what they symbolize…but wait a minute, if he already knows what they symbolize, or she already knows of the miraculous events…then we have to ask ourselves another question – why are we “publicizing a miracle” to those who already know all about it! What’s the point of that?

I would like to suggest that the sages, in their great wisdom, had altogether another goal in mind when they instituted the public lighting of candles as the central focus of this holiday. I think it was an issue of strengthening Jewish identity – which brings me to Kansas.

Prior to our move to Israel in 2000, we lived in Overland Park, Kansas. On those chilly Chanukah nights, we opened wide the blinds in our dining room, lined up our 6 chanukiot (menorahs by another name) – one for each member of the family – and lit away.

First night 6 lights plus a shamash for each of us – making 12,

second night-18,

third night-24….

Straight up ’til we were lighting 54 lights on the last night of the celebration. That was bright, and certainly seen clearly by all who would pass by.

I remember the feeling I would have driving through our neighborhood and other neighborhoods and seeing Chanukah candles aglow in a sprinkling of houses…some belonging to families we knew, and others causing me to pause and wonder, “Gee, who lives there?” Unlike here in Israel, lighting those candles in Kansas is much more than a ritual….it is a clear advertisement – the family inside is advertising to the world at large – but perhaps most importantly to other Jews – that a proud Jewish family lives here in this house.

And you know something – maybe that is the real miracle that is being publicized – that we, the Jewish People, are still here. That despite it all – we are still Jewish, and we who light these candles are as proud as ever.

I can imagine that in certain darker times in Jewish history – when hope was difficult to come by – as a Jew passing by and seeing those candles in someone’s window, it was encouraging; there, in the darkness of winter, you were reminded that you were not alone in your collective memories of better days gone by and your steadfast anticipation of a brighter tomorrow. For that reason, the number of lights increase….as each night your hopes and dreams for a brighter future grow stronger and stronger, encouraged by the silent yet steady glow of those brilliant lights.

I miss that feeling of pride….but, on the other hand, have traded it for a different type of pride. Living in Hashmonaim, five minutes from Modiin where the whole story of the Hasmonean uprising began, I am proud to be among those who have returned to the land, helping to bring about the happy ending that Jews lighting candles in their windows have only dreamed about for thousands of years.

Happy Chanukah.