We like to say that all Jewish holidays have one theme: they tried to kill us, they didn’t, let’s eat. Certainly, that’s the basic premise of Hanukkah: survival.
The rest of Hanukkah is tradition, to light candles, eat fried foods–like we need an excuse here in the South–gamble a little with a top, get some gelt. And, every year, without fail, folks will say, “Hanukkkah is early (or late) this year,” in relation to its proximity to Christmas. By comparison to the annual retail extravaganza of Noel, Hanukkah fares poorly, and Jewish kids seem to suffer. One year, while teaching 6th-grade Hebrew at my synagogue, I asked the class, “What’s the real meaning of Hanukkah?” and one kid piped up, “It means I’m really getting an iPod!” His bubbeh would be so proud. As I think about it, maybe the the kid’s response shows just how well we’ve survived; he doesn’t have to worry about pogroms or not being allowed to go to the school of his choice.
Still, there’s something comforting about the simplicity of Hanukkah. It was at this time of year I converted to Judaism, and I chose the timing on purpose. In studying the religion and culture, I came to feel that the whole thing is about light, both literal and metaphorical. Light is one of the most primal of stimuli. Light makes us less afraid of things like predators, ignorance, small-mindedness, discrimination, and the darkness of cynicism that can settle in our souls. The scary thing that we’re just sure is lurking under the bed or around the next corner just needs a little light to make it go away.
So, whether you’re Jewish or not, light a candle. Here’s to wishing you a season of light, and bravery.
For a quick summary of the best-known Jewish holidays and a commentary on this one, see Howard Jacobson’s fine article in The New York Times.