Hanukka Retrospective

Berlin, Germany, 1930s, a lit Hanukkah candelabrum on Hanukkah


When you engage with Jewish holidays in the US, they feel slippery, like how you only see ghosts and fairies out of the corners of your eyes. But each holiday has its own quality of slipperiness.

With Chanuka, first, I never spell it the same way twice, because it comes from a different alphabet, and I don’t trust Spell Check homogenizing my culture, so I’m left unsettled. Then the dates shift every year, like all the Jewish holidays, because they’re on a different calendar, and the quality of the celebration changes depending how near or far the eight days are from Christmas and New Year. Its relationship to Christmas is also schizophrenic: on one hand we say, It’s not even really a major holiday, but when I asked a Jewish preschool teacher how to not let my then-three year old daughter get swamped by the predominant social holiday of the season, she gave me one of the most honest answers I’ve ever heard:

“Make Chanukka better,” she said.

Then this is my core unsteadiness with the holiday: is it a celebration of a miracle—one day’s worth of Temple oil lasting eight days—or of an event of earthly justice—the colonized Jews driving out their Greek oppressors? Growing up I got told both, but my Jewish Atheist Zionist Socialist mother mostly poo-poo’d the sacred oil and focused on the strong band of rebels who defeated their Greek oppressors (that, and it was the only Jewish holiday we celebrated at our house, so it had to carry all the weight of the tradition, not just one event).

The miracle? Or the justice? Which one do I look at?

I identify not just as a Jew, but as a religious Jew (although my daily practice leaves much to be desired). In some circles of my friends religion is suspect, if not outright derided. The more I come to know about religion though—not just Judaism, but the socio-spiritual practice of religions as an activity people do—the more I’m thinking that disdain isn’t because of our belief in G_D, but because of our belief in humans.

In the light of the 21st century, an overarching theory of human progress doesn’t seem much different from a belief in G_D having a plan, a story, that we all take part in. Is there an “all of us”? When we think of the verb “progress,” where are we all progressing to?

All of us. I want to write, “We all love Martin Luther King Jr.” but as the world turns right now the idea of all of us falls apart when I look at it too long. But the answer MLK found in his tradition to the question of where we’re progressing to was “Justice.”

“The Arc of the Moral Universe Is Long, But It Bends Toward Justice.” And that was a call for faith in that justice. An engaged faith.

So the miracle for me? Or the justice? It’s 2017, and we’ve just seen political events in the U.S. that seem as unlikely as the parting of water or chariots in the sky, with the election of our new president. This Channukah, I looked at the miracle of Justice in what often appears to be an unjust existence. I meditated on that Justice increasing—and my active commitment to it—with the lighting of each candle. I focused on all of us together under the arc of a story so much bigger than us that we can’t comprehend. I focused on the miracle of the story, and surrendering to being held in it, and walking in it, with all of you, on our way toward Justice.

If we want Justice, we must be just. I don’t pretend that, in every situation, I know what that means, but this Chanukkah, I recommitted to being a part of a miracle of Justice.


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