The power of candle-lighting to remember Jewish events
The following story is especially appropriate before candle lighting on Shabbat or Chanukah, even though it is about Chanukah.
December 1980. Natan (Anatoly) Sharansky’s ninth Chanukah in Soviet Prison. Sharansky is serving in a Siberian labor camp as a Prisoner of Zion. In his ongoing efforts to retain his Jewish identity under the cruelest of conditions, he fashions a small wooden Chanukah menorah, with which to light the Chanukah candles. On the sixth night of Chanukah, the authorities confiscated the menorah. “A camp is not a synagogue. We won’t permit Sharansky to pray here,” they said.
What follows is Sharansky’s account of his response:
“I was surprised by the bluntness of that remark, and immediately declared a hunger strike. In a statement to the procurator general, I protested against the violation of my national and religious rights, and against KGB interference in my personal life…
I was summoned to Major Osin’s office two days later, in the evening. Osin pulled a benevolent smile over his face as he tried to talk me out of my hunger strike… Osin promised to see to it personally that in the future nobody would hinder me from praying, and that this should not be the concern of the KGB.
“Then what’s the problem?” I said. “Give me back my menorah as tonight is the last evening of Chanukah. Let me celebrate it now, and taking into account your assurances for the future, I shall end the hunger strike.”
But a protocol for its confiscation had already been drawn up, and Osin couldn’t back down in front of the whole camp. As I looked at this predator sitting at an elegant polished table wearing a benevolent smile, I was seized by an amusing idea.
“Listen,” I said, “I’m sure you have the menorah somewhere. It’s very important to me to celebrate the last night of Chanukah. Why not let me do it right here and now with you!”
Osin thought it over and promptly the confiscated menorah appeared from his desk. He summoned Gavrulik, who was on duty in the office, to bring in a large candle.
“I need eight candles,” I said. (In fact, I needed nine, but when it came to Jewish rituals I was still a novice.) Gavrulik took out a knife and began to cut the candles into several smaller ones.
I arranged the candles and went to the coat rack for my hat, explaining to Osin that during the prayer he too must stand with his head covered and at the end say ‘Amen.’ He put on his major’s hat and stood. I lit the candles and recited my own prayer in Hebrew which went something like this: “Blessed are You, God, for allowing me to rejoice on this day of Chanukah, the holiday of our liberation, the holiday of our return to the way of our fathers. Blessed are You, God, for allowing me to light the candles. May You allow me to light the candles many times in your city, Jerusalem, with my wife Avital, and my family and friends.”
I added, “And may the day come when all our enemies, who today are planning our destruction, will stand before us and hear our prayers and say ‘Amen’.”
“Amen,” Osin echoed back.