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My First Hanukkah

Christmas had always been problematic for me. The incessant seasonal messages about peace and goodwill one the one hand and the relentless exhortations to buy, buy, buy on the other, aroused conflicting emotions in me. What was I supposed to feel and do? Consequently, I wound up feeling simultaneously depressed, inadequate, and over-stimulated, year after year. So, as a Jew-by-choice, 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 day¹s 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 in the meaning for the individuals involved. I¹m fortunate to be a member of an extended family whom I have known for 35 years. In fact, they gave me the menorah that I use to celebrate Hanukkah. My menorah came from the wife¹s father¹s house, one of the many connections between us. What it didn¹t come with was instructions. So, while I lit the appropriate number of candles each night, I improvised the order of setting and lighting, and I said the required blessings, sometimes twice, just to be sure. OK, I thought, now what? There were no others around to talk, play games, or eat with, so I settled down in a club chair in my living room and focused on the soft, glowing light of the candles. 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 suffused 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.

Today, Hanukkah occupies the foreground of my life and the hype and hustle surrounding Christmas have receded into the background like a noisy party down the block. That,I can live with. In the Diaspora, the little spinning tops called dreidels carry the Hebrew letters nun, gimel, hey, and shin, one on each side. The 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. That¹s true for me, too.

Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. Hebrew for "candelabrum" or "lamp," it usually refers to the nine-branched candelabrum that is lit for the holiday of Hanukkah. (A seven-branched candelabrum, a symbol of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, is a symbol of Judaism and is included in Israel's coat of arms.) Hebrew for "spinning top," the four-sided toy played with during the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah is more commonly known by its Yiddish name, "dreidel." A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE.
Douglas Smith

Douglas Smith is a Cambridge-based writer who specializes in corporate and business communications issues. He is a member of Temple Israel in Boston, Mass.

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