A Place for a Hanukkiah

hanukkah day 1

Yesterday evening I thought about where to put the hanukkiah. There is no place near the doorway for it, and the window is more than thirty feet above ground, so I had to look beyond the traditional options. I put on the windowsill after all, because it is lovely there. I had it face toward the inside, since only from indoors can anyone see it in full. No one in the alley below can see it–the balcony blocks the view–but someone walking along the Zagyva might spot the tips of the flames.

I thought about the resilience of the Hanukkah story–the rededication of the Temple, the lasting of the lights–and the resilience that I have found here. People sometimes think of resilience as difficult, exhausting, admirable, even pitiable, but that’s an outside view. From the inside, resilience isn’t always joyous, but when it is, it girds itself with light. It has less to do with toughness or bravery than with locating something that endures. Even that endurance might not be obvious. I find it, for instance, in May Swenson’s poem “Water Picture,” which seems (but only seems) to collapse into itself at the end.

And at school we have a tradition of caroling–so I have been singing Christmas songs too. Here in Szolnok, the festivities revolve around Christmas; Budapest has a Hanukkah celebration on the ice rink, but in Szolnok I have yet to see the word Hanukkah at all. I imagine, though, that somewhere in Szolnok someone else is lighting a hanukkiah. It isn’t too hard, in any case, to bring the holiday into the air. I taught one of my classes “Sevivon sov sov sov” yesterday, along with some Christmas songs, and told  them a little about it. None had heard it before, and they seemed to enjoy it.

Hanukkah is traditionally a minor holiday; it has become popular over time mainly because of its proximity to Christmas (it takes place in November or December, depending on the Jewish calendar). Moreover, the earliest written source of the Hanukkah story–Maccabees 1 and 2–is part of the Catholic Old Testament but not the Jewish Bible, and it tells only part of the story that we know today. It is the Talmud that first recounts the miracle of the oil.

Still, minor or not, the holiday has resilient meaning (despite John Oliver’s quip about it essentially “celebrating fuel savings“), not only in the lights’ symbolism but in their reality and our accompanying imagination. When I lit the first candle last night, I thought of people who would be lighting theirs in six hours or so. I thought, also, of the shamash, the lovely “servant” candle that lights the others, and its importance to the entire ritual. On my hanukkiah, which I purchased in Budapest, the shamash stands above the others, which was one reason I chose it (the lions were another). I sensed that this hanukkiah had been used and loved for many years. The storekeeper believes it is over a century old (except for the shamash holder); he doesn’t know where it comes from, but whatever its origins, it has held light and time.

Hag Urim Sameah, Merry Christmas, and Happy Almost-Wintertime to all!

P.S. On another subject: My essay “This Is a Resolution? A Letter on Bellow’s Seize the Day” is now published in Literary Imagination, Volume 19, Issue 3. To read it, please find the link on the News page of my website or, better yet, subscribe to the journal.

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  1. Judith Croke

     /  December 14, 2017

    Happy Hanukkah! Are you enjoying any doughnuts? (there should be plenty to be found e.g. in Auchan on a regular basis albeit they are much larger than the ones we get in London) . We are indulging on them every night as the local bakeries offering plenty of varieties here.. Both my children learned the Hanukkah song ” Sevivon sov sov sov ” way back in nursery and still carry on singing it at infant and junior schools at Hanukkah. They had Hanukkah assembly yesterday where they sang the song and talked about the story. This is just part of growing up in multicultural London ..nothing special, just regular part of (state) school and nursery life. And following on from this , I was reflecting on what you wrote.. that you are wondering whether anyone else is celebrating Hanukkah in Szolnok… and I am sure that there must be. I love seeing the candles in the windows on our street. .. But I think it is a real shame that the tradition of Hanukkah and other celebrations are not being taught or explained at schools. I think how much richer my own children’s life will have become through learning about the different traditions and cultures, singing the Hanukkah song, wearing the crown and telling the story.. something I am envious of because I never had the chance to do the same while growing up in Szolnok and while going to the same school where you are now teaching kids and teaching them the Hannukah song..

    • Thank you for all of this! I will reply more fully soon… heading to Budapest right after school today for Shabbat Hanukkah services and celebrations.

  1. Lights Together and Alone | Take Away the Takeaway

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