Chanukah starts on Sunday, December 18, this year.
There’s really not a lot to say about the holiday. It’s not Christmas. It’s not a major festival. It’s not the focus of our culture’s attention. We don’t get to string lights outside and bring the smells of pine forests into our homes. It’s far more low-key.
One striking thing about Chanukah is that its origin is not in theology but in politics, in revolution and armed uprisings and strategy and deep divisions in the community and life and death and victory. Given the intensely political times in which we find ourselves now, it certainly leads us to hope that our way to victory will be more pacific than it was for the Maccabees, and more long-lasting. And, of course, that we can figure out a way to define victory so that somehow all of us win.
Chanukah also is about light in darkness. Days are horrifyingly short now — if you have dogs to walk, it’s almost impossible, unless those dogs are miracles of biology and nature, not to have at least one walk in the pitch dark. Most of us have two of them. Yes, there are streetlights, and cars and trucks and buses have headlights, but there’s still something elementally terrifying about the darkness, and none of us are old enough or sophisticated enough not to notice, at least occasionally.
So the idea of lighting candles, more and more each night, is elementally wonderful. And if you get the kind of chanukiah that has little bulbs for paraffin instead of candles, they last longer. (Does anyone know why most Chanukah candles are so flimsy that they burn for what appears to be 30 seconds before they’re done?)
Every Chanukah for the last maybe 20 years or so, I remember the time I stopped off at Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg’s house in Englewood at just about candle-lighting time. (Rabbi Hertzberg died in 2006, although his personality was so strong and his presence so vivid that it’s hard for me to believe that it’s been so long. I still halfway expect him to call me, as he so often did — and not just me, I wasn’t special that way — and say “Hello! This is Yasser Arafat…”)
I had come by just to drop something off, but Rabbi Hertzberg insisted that I stay to light the candles. It was just me, Rabbi Hertzberg, and his wife, Phyllis. So we lit the candles, said the blessings, of course, and then he insisted that we sing “Maoz Tzur.”
The problem for me was that I cannot sing. (I can talk forever, but those are not related skills.) As it turned out, neither could Rabbi Hertzberg; if Ms. Hertzberg could, she was drowned out, but I don’t thinking singing was her strong point either. So we stood there, the three of us, as it happened each one of us very short, with Rabbi Hertzberg bellowing and his wife and I trying to whisper. I could hear how hideous it sounded.
And also how lovely, how love-filled, it was.
None of us could sing, but each of us could remember.
Despite the fact that Rabbi Hertzberg was a famous Jewish public intellectual, his wife had the stature of being his partner, and I, well, I had none of that, even almost, it didn’t matter. The air was filled with love and connection. Light in the midst of gathering darkness. Light that has stayed with me.
We at the Jewish Standard wish all of our readers a very happy, light-filled Chanukah.