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.

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9 Responses to “What I Miss about Chanukah in Kansas”

  1. Karen Smith Wednesday, December 21, 2011 at 9:35 am #

    And we miss Chanukah with you and your family in Kansas, too.

  2. Julian Yudelson aka Dr. Y? Wednesday, December 21, 2011 at 5:40 pm #

    Hag samach from the Yudelsons still in “upstate.” I agree completely. That is why we started with our 4 foot chanukia in Milwaukee, many, many years ago. In a neighborhood that was about half Jewish, we were the first to really go public. Others followed.

  3. Henri Goettel Wednesday, December 21, 2011 at 6:25 pm #

    That’s exactly the reason why we light our hanukiot in our windows here in Missouri. And it makes me feel good to know that at least two of our non-Jewish neighbors now know what they’re looking at. chag urim sameach l’kulam!

  4. Eliana Megerman Thursday, December 22, 2011 at 3:51 am #

    Is it too cliche to say that leaves me with a glowing feeling or pride? Thanks Rabbi Schwartz!

    • Eliana Megerman Thursday, December 22, 2011 at 4:11 am #

      that should read “of pride”.

    • Morey Thursday, December 22, 2011 at 8:11 am #

      Cliches are warmly welcomed during holiday seasons

  5. Marion hamermesh Thursday, December 22, 2011 at 3:32 pm #

    Here’s the same phenomenon, inside out.

    I had noticed that in my neighborhood, amongst the many houses that are all lit up with Christmas lights, there are some that are not – and that’s when I wonder, oh a Jewish family may live there, I wonder who that is.

    At this time of darkness (although starting today that trend is reversing) I’m grateful for whatever light we can make.

    Happy Hanukah

  6. Mark Dembo Friday, December 23, 2011 at 6:58 am #

    Morey- thanks for this insightful post. I will share this with my kids to help them better understand what we light the menorah and the meaning it can bring to our lives, today!I

  7. Eva Robey Saturday, December 24, 2011 at 3:28 pm #

    I only got to read this after shabbat and by extraordinary coincidence after watching 2 episodes of Mad Men. In Sydney there are several public candle lighting events including one in the centre of the city. It’s exciting to be able to participate in these events, they didn’t happen when I was a child. May we be able to celebrate publicly wherever we are in the world.

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