“Nu, vos iz Chanukeh? Mi macht a pur latkes, und mi git de kinder a pur groschen” (So, what is Chanukah? One makes a few latkes, and you give the kids a few pennies!).
These were my beloved mother’s memories of Chanukah as a small child in 1930s Poland. Her thoughts and memories transferred on to our modest family life in the small prairie town where I grew up in the early 60’s. By the time Chanukah came around, the snow had reached high peaks, the temperature was well below freezing ,and darkness was descending upon us by 3:00 PM. The streets were lit by a combination of old-fashioned electric street lamps and multi-colored Christmas lights.
My mother skillfully grated potatoes and fried latkes in corn oil. What respectable Jewish family even thought about using olive oil? Did anyone in our town even sell olive oil? Then I would smother them in applesauce, swallowed them with wild enthusiasm, although, according to tradition, we were supposed to eat them with sour cream. The Chanukah candles we lit were the cheap multi-colored wax ones in the classic menorah decorated blue boxes from Israel. The Chanukiah was placed on the kitchen table. I would then proceed to sing the blessings, and the two verses of Maoz Tzur I had learned in school. Thereafter, Chanukah gelt was offered- one dollar and a red plastic knit sack with gold covered chocolate coins. In alternate years, our Jewish Day School had each class present a small skit or song, after which we received some chocolates, and a small plastic driedel. Imagine my surprise and envy to find that my affluent classmates had received a plethora of presents from parents and grandparents they were gifted on the first candle light. Some boasted of having received enormous cash gifts of twenty dollars. But altogether, Chanukah was a small event in the early 1960’s, overshadowed by the enormity of Christmas carols, Christmas trees, Christmas presents, Christmas movies, ad nauseum.
My immigration to the United States found an even newer “tradition” had overtaken Chanukah. Gifts were to be given on every single night. Where did that come from? Amazing, how hard we Jews had to work in the war against an enemy even greater and more powerful than ancient Greek culture- Christmas consumerism!
But then, something new and magical, something as old as the Talmud came to reinvigorate us. In 1973, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson TZL, decided with prophetic insight that Chanukah should be taken public, really public. Its immediacy and publicity provided for many a nascent pride in Judaism, and a pride in ourselves. No longer would Chanukah remain within the confines of our homes, candles lit and placed upon kitchen tables. Now our Chanukah menorahs would be seen by everyone, Jew and non-Jew alike. I recall with deep satisfaction that my beloved parents and in-laws, all Holocaust survivors, stood in awe and immense joy as they participated in the public lighting of the Chanukiah in their respective cities. I imagine that they recalled bitter, tearful memories of a Chanukah when candles were lit in subterfuge, or not at all.
Yet, for all the pomp and circumstance of the public Menorahs lightings, and the adoption of authentic Chanukah menorahs using olive oil, the abundance of doughnuts of every type, shape, and flavor, Chanukah parties, Chanukah T- Shirts, all the accouterments, all the adornments, the holiday still seemed more fable, more myth, than reality.
And then came Chanukah 2023, fifty years after the first public display of a Chanukah Menorah. Now, we have the real thing. This year, we are living Chanukah. Today, we Jews are all Maccabees. In Israel we are filled to the brim with pure olive oil- shemen zayit. We hope and pray that our oil will remain lit and shining, as we simultaneously mourn those beautiful and precious souls whose holy oil was spent, and returned to the Almighty. We volunteer in the hospitals, in the schools, on the front lines, in the fields, and in the orchards. Outside of Israel, whether participating in the massive march in Washington, standing knee deep in Canadian snow in a march in Ottawa or, marching in London, Paris, Brussels, and beyond, or, writing letters to mayors, Congress, Senate, the President of the United States, the presidents of so called distinguished universities, demanding protection of Jewish students, and combating anti semitism, giving charity to the Israeli soldiers or their families, protesting the cruelty of captured hostages , or even posting signs on your lawn that state “ I Stand with Israel”, each of us, is now a fighter, a Maccabee, and, so we must remain.
Poignantly, I can now respond to my beloved mother-”Nu vos iz Chanikeh? Mir zenen Yidden,und mir Hoben Yisroel, unt kener gait dos nisht nement aveck fun uns! ( So, what is Chanukah? We are Jews, and we have Israel, and no one will take that away from us!)