Chanukah presents are great, but it’s the presence of Chanukah that really matters.
Chanukah has always been one of everyone’s favourite chaggim – and rightly so! Who wouldn’t love an eight-day binge fest on sugary, extra jammy doughnuts, deep fried latkes and chocolate gelt! Not forgetting about singing the remixed rendition of Ma’oz Tzur whilst lighting the chanukiah (it somehow never ceases to be funny to change the lyrics to ‘the cat’s in the cupboard and you can’t catch me’ no matter how old you are). Even during our primary school years Chanukah was a big deal. There was always that nerve-racking moment of finding out who would get the starring role of Judah the Maccabee in the school Chanukah concert, so that you wouldn’t have to face the shame of going home to tell your parents you would be starring as a mere chanukiah candle… for the third year in a row. There was nothing quite like the feeling of being entrapped in a large piece of coloured card, wrapped in a cylindrical shape around your body – restricting all movement to an awkward shuffle-waddle. Not forgetting the red-orange paper flame plonked on top of your head, which happened to blend nicely into your flushed, bright-red face as you stood on that stage absolutely mortified. Of course it was always recorded on your dad’s camcorder so that the embarrassment could come back to haunt you for years to come (not that I am talking out of a bitter personal experience of course!)
But even still, these typical Chanukah traditions that we engage in, year in, year out have always seemed pretty futile to me. It’s hard to attribute any sort of true meaning and value on seemingly trivial traditions. Of course the story of Chanukah is about miracles: The Maccabees defeating the Greek army against all odds, the rededication of the Beit Hamikdash, and that little drop of oil that lasted for a whole eight days. But how can we relay any meaning onto a story set over 2000 years ago? Especially when we never see any open miracles like that today. Chanukah truly is an enigma. Given that we Jews can’t even agree on its very spelling (Chanukah? Hanukah? Hanukkah?!?!) it’s no wonder that a shroud of mystery surrounds its celebration. So, I’ll try and give my own interpretation of what Chanukah has come to mean to me…
Last year, Chanukah took on a very different meaning for me and I was finally able to attribute a true sense of value onto Chanukah and its corresponding traditions. Although doughnuts with three extra shots of jam was enough to edge Chanukah up there amongst my favourite chaggim (giving Purim a close run for its money), I suddenly realised that Chanukah holds a much more intrinsic and familial value and will continue to do so for the rest of my life. My grandpa passed away around Chanukah time last year, and although his loss brought deep sorrow and despair upon my family, we believed it wasn’t so coincidental that his passing coincided with Chanukah – the festival of light.
Chanukah tends to shed light on what is usually a dark, cold and miserable time of year. Last year, amidst a time of mourning and grief, Chanukah exerted a special warmth and comfort, whilst reigniting uplifting and filial memories that brought us all together. Throughout my childhood Chanukah was always a big family affair; we would all gather at my grandparents’ house for an evening of chanukiah-lighting, doughnuts and presents. Every single year my grandpa would buy us all ‘shmy-buys’ – a term he coined for the funny, gimmicky little gifts that he used to go out and buy for us all. The adults of the family would receive such things as rolls of tin-foil, and us children would usually receive gifts designed for children half our age – that we all pretended to love with a feigned look of excitement. There never really was a dull moment during these Chanukah gatherings, especially with the little tricks my grandpa would play on us all. Like the time he masterminded the one-man pass-the-parcel trick, whereby he wrapped up a present with what must have been about ten layers of immaculately-wrapped wrapping paper, which had everyone doubled over in fits of laughter… only to reveal that we had waited expectantly for five minutes for the grand unwrapping of a pen! In retrospect, what I have come to learn from all of this, is that on Chanukah it’s not about the presents we receive, it’s about the presence of those who surround us that fills the festival of Chanukah with light. This is what my grandpa wanted us to understand; all the Chanukah traditions are great – the doughnuts, the latkes and even the presents – but these very traditions are not the core essence of Chanukah, they are merely instrumental in bringing us all together to create real experiences and memories.
If we take a step back and think about the mad world in which we find ourselves living in today, with the most recent atrocities occurring in Israel, Paris, Mali, Syria, it is difficult to see how we can shed any light on the world. It is easy to lose sight of the positives, but it is vital that we do not succumb to such negativity. In light of such atrocities, what truly inspired me was to see the wedding of Sarah Litman and Ariel Beigel going ahead just two weeks after Sarah’s father and brother were murdered in a terrorist attack. An open invitation meant that thousands of people attended the wedding, with hundreds even flying in from abroad. It’s incredible to the see the Jewish people arise from such horrendous grief and mourning in order to unite together in solidarity and celebrate something so special. Again with Paris, amongst the shock and despair from the immediate aftermath of the Paris attacks, we witnessed the rest of the world stand in solidarity with Paris in this time of crisis. We saw the ‘#PorteOuverte’ hashtag flooding twitter, as concerned Parisians were offering their homes as an ‘open door’ for those who were stranded to find comfort in a safe place. We may no longer see the explicit miracles of the Chanukah story today, but even at times when we have reached the deepest despair, there are those that are still able to shed light on terrible situations, which is truly miraculous in itself. It just goes to show that there is always a light at the end of what can appear to be the deepest and darkest of tunnels.
It is up to us, as HDUK, to not only find that light, but to BE that light. There are so many positive things that we can achieve as a collective, counter-culture movement. Although at times it may feel like we are fighting a losing battle, similar to the Maccabees, we must always remember that the darkest hour is just before the dawn. Yet, we can avoid reaching the ‘darkest hour’ through our endeavors to share our vision of Shivyon Erech Ha’Adam (The Equality of Human Value). Combatting our struggles will seem worth it in light of the better world that we are striving to create. HDUK can and should be the Ner Tamid (everlasting light) of the Jewish community that cannot be extinguished.