Chanukah in New Jersey and Chanukah in Jerusalem are very different experiences. In New Jersey, Chanukah is an occasion for families to get together within the home, light candles, eat fried foods, and exchange presents. And although public places add the odd menorah or Jewish star to the multitudes of wreaths and bells, Chanukah is mostly celebrated internally, within Jewish homes and institutions.
In Jerusalem, however, Chanukah is far from private. Rather than giant tinsel-covered trees, we have giant menorahs lit up blue and white. Carolers are replaced by Klezmer musicians, candy canes and gingerbread men by delicious sufganiyot (fried donuts). Walking around the city at night, one can feel Chanukah in the air. In alleyways lit up on both sides by candles, passersby wish each other a Chanukah Sameach (happy Chanukah) as they hum traditional tunes. Chanukah is not just a religious holiday, it is a national, cultural one, encompassing the lives of religious and secular alike for eight days and nights.
It’s fitting that Chanukah is a cultural holiday, because it commemorates a cultural victory. Hassidic Rabbi Sholom Noach Berezovsky, in his book Nesivos Shalom, differentiates the miracle of Purim from the miracle of Chanukah. In the Purim story, the threat was a physical one; Haman (similar to Hitler) simply wanted to eradicate anyone who had Jewish blood. In the Chanukah story, however, the danger was spiritual. The Greeks were not interested in mass genocide, but wanted to destroy Jewish ritual and culture. They outlawed circumcision and Torah study, two practices that most distinguish Jews from the rest of the world. The rebellion of the Maccabees was not one for physical safety, but a battle against Hellenization and a victory of Jewish culture and Torah values.
In America, no one is restricting us or oppressing us. We are free to live as we choose. Which leads to a different problem. Do we choose to be Jewish, or do we choose to give in to foreign values? How many of us idolize celebrities and worship sports teams, “religiously” watch TV shows and movies that include crude and inappropriate jokes and scenes? Technology provides access to endless distractions and nonsense, countering the Jewish values of the preciousness of time and of “not straying with our eyes.” Many are afraid to outwardly show signs of being Jewish in an effort to fit in and be like everyone else. According to the 2013 Pew Research study, the intermarriage rate of American Jews is 58%. More than half of American Jews have chosen to forget the victory of Chanukah and marry a non-Jew.
The celebration of Chanukah is not just about remembering an enemy that we once defeated. It is about acknowledging a war that is ongoing. When we light Chanukah candles, we are telling the world ‘the Jewish people have values that cannot be suppressed.’ The challenge is, do we choose to live by those values, and be proud of them, or do we treat them as secondary and slowly slink into today’s “me” culture of immediate gratification and unanimity for all?
On the second day of Chanukah in my school, Yeshivat Orayta, six of our rabbis presented a panel discussion about why they chose to leave America and live in Israel. Several gave a reason that very much resonated with me — the desire to be a part of the “Jewish story” and ensure continuity within their families, which they believe can only be done in Israel. Afterwards, Ezra Yakhin, a veteran of the 1948 Israeli War of Independence, spoke about his experiences.
Mr. Yakin’s age, accent, and account of survival against all odds reminded me of my paternal grandparents, Max and Bernadette Dukas, of blessed memory. My grandparents, who were both Holocaust survivors, often shared stories of the oppression and hardship they experienced, and of their miraculous survival. I have always felt a strong connection to their stories, which link me personally to thousands of years of Jewish suffering, and more importantly, survival.
After my grandparents passed away, whenever I met or heard from people who had similar experiences and traits to them, I keenly felt the loss of this connection to the Jewish story. But when I heard Mr. Yakhin speak after my rabbis’ words about their efforts to continue the Jewish story, I saw things in a new light. My grandparents’ stories are not just a memory; they are a legacy, a mission for me and for their other descendants to not just be products of the Jewish story, but to be part of it.
There are so few left who survived the Holocaust and fought for the independence of the State of Israel. It is now our time to honor their memories, and create a new chapter in the Jewish story. Each and every Jew should ask him/herself: what am I doing to fight the ongoing war of the Maccabees, live the Chanukah miracle, honor those killed for being Jewish, and pave my own way in the Jewish story?