Lights Together and Alone

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Last night, Hanukkah began.

Since this holiday commemorates a historical event with no clear heroes (were the Maccabees the virtuous ones? Or were they, as some suggest, religious zealots who used violence to bring other Jews to their way of life?), many seek a modern, general, attractive meaning in it: something about endurance, light in darkness, and the presence of miracles in everyday things. The historical event serves as the ancient background but is usually not the main focus.

Lighting my hanukkiah here in Szolnok for the second year (you can see the wax from last year), or rather, after lighting the shamash and first candle and after getting some sleep, I thought about another possible meaning.

The historical event, much oversimplified here (and tellable in various ways), is this: In the second century BCE, in the time of Antiochus IV, there was an ongoing conflict between the Hellenized Jews of Judea, who had assimilated into Greek culture,  and the Maccabees, who resisted such assimilation. When Antiochus took over the temple and erected a statue of Zeus there–he also ordered pigs to be sacrificed there and forbade circumcision–the Maccabees revolted and succeeded. When rededicating the temple, they sought pure oil to light the menorah, but found only one flask, enough for one day (the rest of the oil had been contaminated). But this one flask, according to legend, ended up lasting eight days. From this miracle arose the festival of lights.

Am I on the side of the Maccabees? The Hellenized Jews? Neither? It is difficult to know, since the events and their contexts are so far away. But I do know that I am part assimilated, part not, in Jewish terms and in general. There is a part of me that does not fit in and never has, a part that fits in with some things and not with others, and a part that participates in the world, learns from others, and does as others do. In my Jewish life specifically, I am both traditional and not; I have a strong Jewish identity and practice, but it is not identical to anyone else’s, nor do I follow all traditional rules.

I can’t take sides inside myself–both the “not fitting” and the participation are essential to me–but on this holiday I can light the candles in honor of both: of that thing that burns and persists in a person, regardless of all dampers, all censure, and of this holiday that millions around the world have celebrated over the centuries, even with different meanings and understandings. And so, Happy Festival of Lights!

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