Destiny of Solid Stone
Growing up in America, Chanuka was always overshadowed by that major Christian holiday that occurs around the same season. There may have been a lot of Jews in New York, but in my elementary school, there were hardly any, and I happened to be one of that tiny minority. This was most noticeable on Wednesday afternoons, when the majority of my class vacated to some mysterious thing called “catechism” leaving behind a few Protestants and the four representative Jewish kids.
There wasn’t much our teacher, Mrs. Schwartz, could do with us during those remaining afternoon hours with so few students, so usually we would draw or do our homework. But one time she had the useful idea of assigning me the job of writing a short historical essay about the upcoming festival of Chanuka.
After dutifully fulfilling my responsibility to finish this factual composition about the events we would be commemorating, I was then supposed to stand up in front of my classmates and publicly announce, by reading my little report, that I was different, I was Jewish, and this is what Jews celebrated while the rest of the class was busy with trees and reindeer and glorious amounts of presents. I knew, for example, that the other three Jewish kids in my class all had X-mas trees, since their parents considered this a “cultural” American thing, and not connected enough to religion to warrant banning it.
And don’t think that I didn’t plead for the opportunity to decorate our very own symbolic tree…. (symbolic of fun and gifts, I suppose). I didn’t like being the only one to miss out. But my parents refused to accommodate my need to fit in and be a normal American kid and absolutely would not capitulate on this point.
When I claimed that we could call it a ‘Chanukah bush’, Mom distinctly told me that was ridiculous, I could call it whatever I wanted, but it was still an X-mas tree in disguise and totally unacceptable in a Jewish home! My parents were not great believers in conformity. Being different was a perfectly fine way to be.
Maybe my teacher knew about my dilemma, my feelings of discomfort being different… maybe she herself was actually Jewish, too, and she wanted to encourage me by giving me that assignment to write about the history of Chanuka…. I suppose this may have been her way of being supportive, by singling me out to be the sole representative of the Faith and explain our religion to the uninitiated.
All I remember is that when the moment of truth came, I couldn’t stand up in front of my classmates to read what I’d written, and I passed on this privilege to Evelyn Silver instead. She didn’t mind reading it. After all, she had a tree in her living room. She wasn’t that different!
Outwardly I looked like any other little girl with ponytails and freckles, but inside I hated that uncomfortable feeling of not quite fitting in with my surrounding society.
Those three other Jewish kids in my class, they got the tree and Chanukah, too. I soon discovered that their parents happily provided them with eight gifts throughout the week, one for each day of the Holiday. When I found out this fact and mentioned it to my mother, she said,
“If we buy you kids so many presents, that will become more important to you than the meaning of Chanukah itself!”
I will confess, this answer stunned me into silence. I was impressed. My parents had values. They didn’t want their children to live an empty life of seeking further material acquisition and possession. They, on principle, wanted Chanukah to be joyous in and of itself. Latkes with applesauce, dreidels, chocolate coins and one gift would suffice for their kids!
After that, I didn’t ask for “Chanukah bushes” and plentiful amounts of presents. Something inside of me felt satisfied and happy. We really were different! I had uncovered incontrovertible evidence that my parents were indeed connected to some higher purpose in life! I seemed to have been searching for that deeper meaning since I was a small tot, standing in our front yard wondering why I was Jewish, why I was a girl and why I was born in American, and not in some distant war-torn country where children were suffering from poverty and starvation. Why, why, why??
Another noticeable phenomenon in that same season, was when the neighbors started sporting round wreaths on their front doors. Every week, when we would drive to visit my grandma and cousins in Queens, I would be on the lookout to find even one lone domicile that was devoid of this decoration.
If a plain door was spotted, I would enthusiastically shout, “JEWISH!” My father thought this annual outburst of mine was great: he would swing his head around from the driver seat, give me an enormous grin and repeat, “JEWISH!”
I sensed from his pleased reaction that obviously, being Jewish was something special and important to him, too.
Then one year, when I was about twelve, my father took my mother, baby sister and I on a trip to Israel to visit our relatives, my grandma’s first cousins and all their progeny. My brothers didn’t get to go, they were farmed out to different aunts and uncles. I was at a really impressionable age and one thing I clearly recall from that memorable odyssey, was our search for a menorah. It had to be just the right one: strong, solid, nearly unbreakable. No thin silver or glass for our rambunctious bunch.
We visited a lot of gift shops, not just to buy this special religious item, but to bring back souvenirs of the Holy Land for all our family. Finally, in the umpteenth store, we selected a large menorah composed of various pastel shades of color: green, pink, white, blue and beige. It was a heavy piece of thick, solid stones, and in my mind, the added weight symbolized a direct connection to Jewish history—Jews were made of tough material and we would last forever.
Returning with it to America, our new menorah was placed in the middle of the mantel-piece above the fireplace in the living room. It stood majestically, its eight arms curving boldly upward, awaiting the moment when it would light up our home with its historical message.
Despite my school homework assignment back in fourth grade, that I’d freely written from the information gleaned in World Book Encyclopedia, I still wasn’t sure exactly what the meaning of Chanukah was, even with my parents best intentions that that should be the main focus of our celebration.
Was it the few conquering the mighty, or was it the miracle of the tiny flask of oil burning longer than was physically possible? Our menorah represented something real, but what was that reality?? And arguing with my siblings over who’s turn it was to light the colorful candles didn’t enhance the aura of holiness that I so much wanted to connect with.
Our menora came from the Land of Israel. Now I had images in my mind of a country far across the ocean, a place that had, strangely enough, seemed warm and familiar when I was there. That uncanny feeling of resonating with my environment, of being in sync with my surroundings, that I, too, was descended from ancient desert stock, that I actually resembled so many people that we met, my relatives, of course, included, was a sensation I tucked away in my unconsciousness for safe keeping.
Throughout the following years, those subtle pastel colors of solid stones continued to serve as a reminder that there was life beyond the borders of the secular society that I was living in.
Many more life events occurred over the next decade, before I was eventually able to set sail back to the Holy Land that had captured my childhood heart. I can only describe my return as one filled with awe and reverence as I walked the streets of Jerusalem, finally, knowing that I wouldn’t leave until I’d had a chance to unravel all the unsolved mysterious that had never found a proper place to be addressed.
It was the eighth night of Chanuka and I stopped by a neighbor. She had ten children and all of their menorah’s made as school projects were arranged on top of folded, crinkly foil that covered the table. Each round metal cap glued to a wooden base held a brightly colored candle. Ninety flickering lights, dancing shadows on the red, blue, yellow, orange, pink, green and white candles illuminated the faces of her thrilled, excited children.
The living room, with its arched domed ceiling and massively thick, white plastered walls, built over one hundred and fifty years ago, was aglow with a historical presence of significance, as though the shimmering shadows wished to speak and tell a story.
Who among the Hellenist Jews was able to believe that a handful of determined Jews with their stubborn faith in G-d, would defeat the mighty Greek empire, outlasting them by thousands of years? At the time, it must have seemed obvious that an informed choice based solely on numerical statistics would lead one to side with the conquering Greek culture.
A reasonable adult could intellectually conclude that the Jews were clearly outnumbered, the Beis Hamikdash was defiled, the Greeks had overtaken the ancient world, and our time as an “eternal” people was up! Who could cling to the persistent hope that the Jews would survive this onslaught and go on to cleanse and rededicate the Holy Temple?
Contemplating these slender burning candles, I myself can hardly believe that I am here in Jerusalem, surrounded by Jews celebrating a Jewish Holiday, and not still stuck back in America, where this festival is nearly swallowed up by the dominating influence of western, Christian society.
During my first Chanukah in Jerusalem, I was delighted to discover the custom in many families of having each individual child light his own personal menorah! Witnessing the wonder of the abundance of this inspirational radiance in the windows of the streets in Yerushalayim was a revelation.
Walking beside the building entrances, peering into the sturdy glass-paned metal boxes that contained small cups of brightly burning wicks floating in olive oil, lit by the head of every household, completely enveloped my neshama with warmth.
It was as though the child within me, that had always instinctively known there was something bigger and better about being Jewish than I was being led to believe, could now rejoice with full satisfaction that she had been personally redeemed.
My first Chanukah in Jerusalem, winding through the city streets, exploring every neighborhood, seeking out the brilliance of the hundreds of luminous lights glimmering in the darkness was an unbelievable experience. How had I possibly merited to be here? What a contrast to the paltry light of my childhood Chanukah’s! And yet, even that wee light was powerful enough to somehow keep me connected.
As I’ve been privileged to continue living in Eretz Yisroel for many years, on Chanukah I always try to make a point of walking after candle-lighting to marvel anew at the sight of so many menorahs burning brightly in all the window’s of this small country. Everywhere you go, they are lit! Here, every individual’s radiant contribution is of great relevance to all the Jewish people. Every single person counts. Each Jew’s additional light has mighty significance.
“We are here! We are here! We are here,” those flames proclaim to all who see.
It is a miracle!! We can know without a doubt, as we gaze at the illumination created by a bit of burning olive oil, that there is truly Light in the darkness. We can continue forward with renewed hope, because miracles do happen. Despite the intensity of the evil that threatens to overwhelm us, Hashem is directing history, and as it unfolds towards its ultimate destination of geula shlaima, we can remember that here:
“Eternal” means forever.