Hanukkah Lights to Warm the Heart

HANUKKAH, which commemorates the first great battle for survival fought - and won - by the Jewish people over 2,000 years ago, has always had special significance to me, the child of Holocaust survivors.

Well, not always. As a child, I never celebrated this or any other Jewish holiday. My parents, who fled Nazi Germany in 1939 after my father spent two months in the Dachau concentration camp, had been so fully assimilated into German culture that they hardly considered themselves Jewish. The Nazis thought otherwise.

Despite the fact that they almost perished for the crime of being Jewish, the experience did not intensify my parents' feelings of Jewish identity. Still, their horrible history hung over my head as I grew up in a small New England college town, where we knew only one other Jewish family.

If we didn't observe any Jewish customs, I wasn't really Jewish, was I? But if my very existence hinged on a narrow escape from the systematic annihilation of the Jewish people, how could I not be a Jew and fiercely proud of it?

As an adult, I discovered surprising feelings of affinity for the Jewish people I met, and I found myself wanting to learn more about Jewish customs and the ideas behind them. Surely part of what I found attractive in my husband, who grew up in a kosher home in Queens, N.Y., where almost everyone he knew was Jewish, was that his sense of Jewish identity was so absolute.

Like so many Jewish families today looking for personal meaning in our religion, we seize on the holidays as an opportunity to express, and to teach our childern, what it means to be Jewish.

In Hanukkah, as in other holidays, we find valuable lessons about how to live, not just what to believe. The Festival of Lights is a reminder of miracles, none more miraculous than the human spirit. It extols the basic Jewish values of optimism, tenacity, and the courage to fight for one's convictions.

Hanukkah, which centers on the home rather than the synagogue, is a joyous eight-day family celebration. It is a time for gifts, games, stories, the lighting of the menorah, and great food.

Food may seem like an odd or trivial point of religious identification. But the enjoyment of food is not only a cultural imperative for Jews, who honor the Lord by savoring all the pleasures He created, but also a ritual that carries great historic and symbolic meaning.

Latkes, the crisp potato pancakes around which a Hanukkah meal centers, are reminders of the food Jewish women are believed to have hastily prepared for the Maccabees on the eve of battle. On Hanukkah, we tell the story behind this delicacy, which we serve with apple sauce and sour cream, brisket or turkey, and salad.

The Maccabees, we tell the children gathered in our home, were a band of rebels who took to the hills of Judea when ordered by Antiochus, the conquering Syrian king, to abandon the practice of Judaism. Rather than eat pork and worship the Greek gods as commanded, this small ragtag army rose up and fought the forces that threatened them with certain extinction.

The Maccabees eventually defeated the mighty Syrian army, winning the first great war fought for religious freedom. Three years to the day after the holy Temple was robbed and vandalized, the Maccabees marched triumphantly back into Jerusalem.

The Jews set about restoring the Temple before they celebrated the victory with a rededication of the Temple that also marked a renewal of Jewish life.

As legend has it, Judah Maccabee searched for oil to relight the Eternal Light, but found only enough to last one night. Miraculously, it lasted eight nights.

Thus, latkes, which are fried in oil, are eaten on Hanukkah. Rich butter cookies are sometimes served, and in Israel, orange-flavored doughnuts fried in oil, called Sufganiyot, are traditional.

We play spin the dreidel, and tell the story behind the letters on the four-sided top, which are the first four letters in the Hebrew words, ``A Great Miracle Happened There.'' When Antiochus forbade Jews to study the Torah, students continued to study in secret. But when they heard the footfall of Syrian soldiers, they pulled out their dreidels and pretended to be playing games.

The Hanukkah gelt (gold foil-covered chocolate coins) that we hide for the children to find also has its roots in history: It is a reminder of the new coins with Judas Maccabee's portrait that were minted after the overthrow of Antiochus, the first ruler to practice religious persecution. Even the game of hide and seek that is played with the gelt is symbolic of how the Maccabees hid from the Syrians in the hills and caves of Judea.

As we watch our daughter, Shayna, light the candles on the menorah at sundown each night, we give a prayer of thanks for being able to celebrate the triumph of justice that the glowing candlelight represents.

We celebrate the indomitable spirit that has allowed our people to persevere through a long history of persecution. Even in the camps, Jews drew courage from the great moral victory the holiday commemorates as they saved morsels of fat and pulled threads from their uniforms for wicks to create menorahs.

As we sit in our happy home, surrounded by friends and family, we think about the Jews throughout history, faced with overwhelming odds, who drew strength from the ray of hope that warmed them as they lit the menorah: If the Maccabees could defeat such a powerful enemy, they, too, could survive.

I am here, despite Hitler's Final Solution to the Jewish Problem, I think to myself. And it is truly a miracle.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.