Rabbi Elka Abrahamson placed her hanukkiah in the window, its nine brass branches visible from the street outside her home in Columbus, Ohio, as darkness fell. Next to the menorah, a small Israeli flag protruded from a cup full of pens.
The reasons for being emotionally devastated this year were many, she thought. Typically, the holiday is all about fun for the kids, with gifts and sleigh songs. Now there was war. Death of innocent Israelis and Palestinians. Hate on college campuses. Many people didn't seem to know that Jews were afraid, she thought. There was even a conversation about whether or not to light the menorah for everyone to see.
He remembered a story from the Talmud. Two great rabbis had a dispute over how to light the menorah. One said they should start with eight candles and then decrease. But the other said to start with one candle and add one more each night. His path became tradition. It was a way of showing that light must increase, must be added to the world, he said.
“We have to keep that in mind constantly right now,” Rabbi Abrahamson, president of the Wexner Foundation, a philanthropic group that supports Jewish agencies and programs, said of the lesson about light. “It may seem very weak and small, and just a spark. But we have to determine, each of us, how we use our voices, our intellect, our spirit, to grow the light.”
Hanukkah, the eight-day festival of lights, which ends this week, is a minor holiday on the Jewish calendar, but this year the addition of each candle to the menorah has greater meaning. The celebration occurs not only in the literal darkness of winter in the northern hemisphere, but also in the metaphorical darkness of rising anti-Semitism, the pain and fear many Jewish families face since the Hamas attack on October 7.
And while some Jews fear backlash if they light a menorah this year, many others are turning to the tradition. Courage is precisely the point.
Historically, the holiday is a holiday of hope, commemorating the revolt of the Maccabees, Jewish warriors, in the 2nd century BC. C. against the Greeks, who reestablished Jewish worship in the Temple of Jerusalem. Spiritually, they celebrate the miracle of the oil that lasted eight days, allowing them to rededicate the Temple.
This year, it is especially important to light the menorahs publicly, said Rabbi Jesse Olitsky, 39, of Congregation Beth El in South Orange, New Jersey, an egalitarian Conservative synagogue of about 450 families. He saw new lessons of Jewish community and identity in the old story.
Younger generations have taken for granted the security of what it means to be Jewish in America, he said. She wanted her school-aged children to wear their Star of David necklaces with pride, not tuck them under their shirts out of fear.
“I have no doubt that the Maccabees were scared,” he said. “The miracle was that even in their fear they were proud of who they were.”
This year, Rabba Yaffa Epstein, senior researcher at the Jewish Education Project, ordered blue and white candles from Israel for her menorah. In the story of the Maccabees, military victory is not all that important, she said. “It's true, God did a miracle for us,” she said.
The Talmud tells the oil story several hundred years after the actual event, and after the Jews lost the Temple, he noted. Later sages declared him holy, representing the desire to bring more holiness and light even when light has been lost and darkness returns, he explained.
“The story we tell is one of miracles rather than defeats,” he said. “This year there is an obligation more than ever to turn on the lights.”
He found special beauty in the shamash, the ninth “auxiliary” candle, used to light the candles each night. It is a tangible reminder that candles are lit simply to enjoy the beauty of light, not for its usefulness. “If you need to read, you can't do it by light of the menorah,” she said. “We don't want you to use the light of the Hanukkah lights for anything other than its own purpose, to remember the miracle.”
Old practices take on new meaning, strengthened by the hope of the past. A week before Hanukkah began this year, more than 500 people attended an educational “Bringing the Light” event at the Jewish Community Center in central New Jersey, hundreds more than initially expected. Families spread picnic blankets in a gymnasium adorned with Israeli flags and prayed with local rabbis, eager to unite during this painful season.
Organizers created an exploration area for young children to explore light itself. The oil painting of yesteryear was depicted with modern laser lights: there were glow tablets, translucent dreidels and glow balls, neon sticks, and light designs projected on the walls. The idea was to explore light, but also shadow.
“In Judaism, candles and light are also a symbol of learning,” said Rabbi Paul Kerbel of Temple Beth-El Mekor Chayim, who spoke at the event. “Hamas's attack on Israel reawakened in many Jews the desire to stand up and be proud Jews.”
Candlelight is also fragile and can be blown out by a slight wind, reflected Rabbi Josh Feigelson, host of the Soulful Jewish Living podcast. But it is a fragility that invites attention and courage, not fear, he said.
On the last night of Hanukkah, when all the candles are lit, his family leaves their home near Chicago to watch the scene in the window. Beyond the glass is the glow, beneath the wall of old black and white family photographs, loved ones who have lit these same candles year after year.
One of them was his wife's father, who was born in the forests of Ukraine in 1942 to parents who fought against the Nazis, he said. In the family's story, the baby cried, giving away his position. His parents had to leave him behind in the hope of returning for him. When they did, they found him miraculously alive, surrounded by boot prints.
“Either there was a dose of humanity or they didn't want to waste a bullet,” Rabbi Feigelson said. “If that had not happened and many other things (really miracles) had not happened, she would not be here and my children would not be here.”
“It reminds me of the fragility of the candle,” he said. “The metaphor is self-explanatory.”
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