My First Hanukkah

17 Dec

Christmas has been an issue for me since my mom’s passing, and even the years prior.   The persistent seasonal messages about peace and goodwill on the one hand; and the unyielding messages to buy, buy, buy on the other.  What was I supposed to feel and do?  Since mom passed, my brother and father don’t have much interest in celebrating Christmas.  Consequently, I wound up feeling simultaneously depressed, inadequate, and over-stimulated, year after year.   I had been searching for a faith base that I could start to believe again in a higher power.  So, as a Jew-in-training, I looked forward eagerly to celebrating my first Hanukkah.

In the beginning, I was pretty much in the dark about what the holiday meant beyond something about a military victory in the distant past and the Temple Menorah that burned for eight days on one day’s supply of oil. I asked questions, read, and talked to friends who had been celebrating it all their lives. Yes, Hanukkah is about the victory of the Maccabees over the Syrians, and the miracle of the lamps. But, there is much more, as I discovered.

Family and tradition play a large part in any Jewish holiday. The family can be of origin, adopted, blended or extended; the tradition can be one or a thousand years old. What matters is the meaning for the individuals involved. I¹m fortunate to be a member of an extended family whom I have known for a few years. In fact, one member of the family gave me the menorah that I used to celebrate Hanukkah this year. My menorah came from my “niece” on the first night, she excitedly said, “you need to open your present early”, I was befuddled, but complied.  On the seventh night I received a plate to put under my Menorah that reads “Happy Chanukah”.  The family had left out the printed version of the prayers that were to be said, so that i could follow along.  The first few nights I just read them silently as they recited them.  The act of lighting the candles and then watching them burn put me in a different place. The electric lights in the room seemed to dim as the bright hanukkiah (a special menorah holding eight candles, one for each day that the lamps burned) filled my consciousness. There was peace; there was quiet; a sanctified time. Nothing extraneous. Experiencing that time apart revealed to me the meaning of Hanukkah.

The Maccabean victory and the miraculously-burning Temple lamps speak of freedom from oppression, of light banishing darkness, of re-dedication to the principles that guide our lives. Sitting in that room immersed with the light of the hanukkiah, I reflected on the things that restrict my freedom to be who I want to be, and resolved to change what I can and accept the rest. I gave thanks for the light that drives away the darkness in this season of the year and at this time in my life. And I realized that re-dedication is a process, not an event.

While I will still give my father and brother Christmas presents, I can honestly say that Hanukkah this year finally brought forth a sense of peace during this “holiday season” that I have not felt before.  The hype and hustle surrounding Christmas have distanced themselves from my mind.  That I can live with.  The little spinning tops called dreidels carry the Hebrew letters nun, gimel, hey, and shin, one on each side. They are the initial letters of Nes gadol haya sham, “A great miracle happened there.” In Israel, the final letter on the top, called a sevivon in Hebrew, is pey for po, “here.” “A great miracle happened here.” Nes gadol haya po. That’s true for me, too.


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