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Friday, December 5, 2008
The Hanukkah Story......Still Illuminating After All!
I think I was five years old when the light bulb went on, eliminating any shadow of doubt....Christmas and Hanukkah were not the same! I guess it was Kindergarten that set the flood gates open. Until then, I had been either at home or nursery school, which was held at Temple Concord, so my only experiences were all based on being raised in a Jewish household.
Being exposed to all of my new classmates , out there in the “real world”, set in motion the many changes that take place as children begin the adventure of learning about the world around them. I came home filled with questions about Santa Claus, Christmas trees, Stockings filled with toys...even a few about Jesus, Mary and Joseph.
Somehow, in the good ole’ days, my mother always seemed to be one step ahead of me. Ever prepared, she brought out a new ‘Golden Book’ which I vaguely recall being entitled “The Festival of Lights- the Story of Judah and the Maccabees”. I tried to find it on Ebay, but no luck yet.
“After all, you can read now” my mother reminded me, “I think you’ll find the story illuminating” she added. “Let me know if you have any questions”
I ran up to my room, excited to know that there was a great big book, filled with illustrations, that would provide the answers to all of these new and perplexing queries. Until that moment, I had assumed that every family on every street was lighting the candles, one at a time, and speaking Hebrew. It was the same year that the concept of giving...and receiving gifts, really started to take hold.
I read that book over and over again. I was entranced with the very idea that a small but determined group of people
led by Judah Maccabee and his brothers, could band together and find like-minded individuals, who all believed that they had the right to choose their God.
Jerusalem had been under siege by Antiochus Epiphany, who dreamed of being as powerful a ruler as Alexander the Great had been over 100 years earlier. In his ignorance of the Jewish faith, coupled with his desire to change and dominate the people who lived in the land he had seized control of, Antiochus began the destruction of the Jewish Temples, and drove those who would not obey, into the hills.
It was hiding in those hills and knowledge of the land that allowed the Maccabees to build their resistance and and become a tiny faithful group that, after months of planning and praying, began to fight back- winning battles that seemed impossible to the great Syrian army that had been sent to destroy them originally.
Against all odds, The Jews were able to finally reclaim Jerusalem and Judah found a Temple that had been defiled, but not destroyed. Knowing that his first task was to rededicate the Temple, he gathered the holy men to help. Traditionally, in the days before Antiochus, all sacred temples had oil lamps that continuously burned, as a symbol of the peoples faith and their dedication to Judaism.
Finding only enough oil for one night was a blow to Judah and the Maccabees, as they needed more time to spread the word that the fighting was over- and that the hundreds of others who had been in hiding could safely return and rejoice.
Judah knelt before the altar and prayed that the lamp would remain lit, allowing them the time they needed.Miraculously, the oil continued to fuel the flame for eight nights. Some say that it got even brighter with each day. The Temple once again glowed with the symbol of the Jewish Faith. Those eight days and nights came to be celebrated with an annual festival and ever since then, Jewish people all over the world have celebrated this event.
Suddenly, the menorah made sense to me. The gifts exchanged, one per day, over the 8 days also had new significance. I don’t remember being sad that I didn’t have a Santa Claus, or midnight mass. What I remember is a renewed sense of what it meant to be Jewish and that people all over the world had many different beliefs.
I remember my mother filling in the gaps and explaining diversity and faith. I remember feeling special that our family had different traditions than my friends up the street. I remember going to a neighbors to see them light their tree and their family coming to our house for latkes and the ceremonial lighting of the menorah. I remember reading about Judah and The Maccabees. As I remember, it’s still a pretty good story.