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By Leah BouRamia
When I converted to Judaism in 2013, I wasn’t really into the whole Hanukkah thing. I didn’t completely get it: ok we eat fried food, listen to that one song (all 16 versions of it) and gamble with chocolate coins? Light the menorah…and then what? Maybe exchange a gift or two? To my Christmas-accustomed-mind, it seemed like kind of a letdown. Then a few years went by, and I settled into my own traditions, and came to appreciate the holiday more and more. Assigning mitzvahs (good deeds) to each day became a fun game to do with my kids, and felt right for the season. The kind of activity I hope they will remember when they are older. While I wasn’t really sure how it could compete with Christmas in the Fun Department for the kids, I have come to understand a very important thing about Hanukkah: it is way better for adults.
See, when we are kids, no one is telling us to watch our saturated fats. No one tells us to stretch out Christmas or any other holiday, really, for an entire week, where the presents just trickle in, each day with something new and small to enjoy. No one tells us to literally goof off for a week, actually encouraging us to experience the so-called “eight crazy nights”. And yeah, we aren’t mixing up the gin and tonics in elementary school either.
Don’t get me wrong, some of the newer “traditions” (like the cocktails) are really unconnected to the holiday, which describes the miracle of faith when the oil in the Temple of Jerusalem lasted for eight nights when it was only supposed to last for one. Don’t get me wrong, this is a serious holiday in it’s own right. Some years, like this one, are more so than others.
Fundamentally, Hanukkah is about the illumination of light in the darkness, both figuratively and literally. When everything feels absolutely lost, when hope feels too far away to grasp, Hanukkah brings us back to our faith and reminds us that miracles exist. This is the way we have always perceived the holiday, and the reason we celebrate it with gusto isn’t simply because “the Jewish kids need a holiday too.” Frankly, Hanukkah is a minor festival in our culture. It’s not remotely as important as say, Passover or Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. Those are our major festivals, and the time when we get very serious, have big dinners and shul services. But there are some holidays when we remain more lighthearted, when we exhibit our ability to have a great time with our friends and family. When we demonstrate our sense of humor a little bit. We sing the silly songs, groan over the good food, and talk a big game about our dreidel skills. But this year will be a more serious one.
This year many of us are struggling to feel that light. This year many of us have genuine fears for the safety of our friends; and ourselves Muslim, Christian, Jewish or otherwise. So many terrifying promises of restrictive measures which might endanger our fellow Americans and aspiring Americans; Good people, people who love this country. This year, we really really need Hanukkah. We need to fry up some doughnuts and latkes, mix a drink with our good friends, and light those candles. This year, the menorah means so much to us. These are scary times. It is reality. Edith Wharton once said, “There are two ways of spreading light; to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.” I’d like to invite everyone, Jews or not, to celebrate this beautiful holiday this year. Will you be the candle or the mirror that reflects it? Will we stand up and let our voice be heard to insist on love, freedom and respect, or will we make someone else’s words louder, by sharing, maybe even by being silent to allow space for that person to speak. We can be the mirror, too.
To my mind, nothing kindles hope and appreciation for my neighbors more than driving down the street to see lit menorahs in the windows. To see people I may not even know send that message–In the darkness, there will be light.