For eight nights this Hanukkah, we’ll light candles in our homes. The flames bend and beckon; they invite our songs, and our stories, and help bring warmth into the dark of the new winter. Hanukkah is not generally considered a religiously significant Jewish holiday. It’s extra-Biblical; it’s based on a military victory rather than a Divine commandment; much of its popularity in America is credited to Jewish American desire to successfully compete with the siren majority-culture allure of Christmas. But for countless American Jews, myself included, Hanukkah’s eight days of gathering family and friends and guests in our homes hold memory that is, indeed, sacred.
All the freylekh, joyful, activities on Hanukkah have the power to help us mix loss with survival, and soften the edges of each. The dark space between each candle is, halachically, just as important as the light of every flame.
These past two years have been years of astounding loss. We’ve lost some confidence in our ability to “depend on the kindness of strangers” (Tennessee Williams); we’ve lost employment, health, perhaps even housing, as the pandemic upended our world; we’ve lost, for those of us who harbored it, the illusion that America is a country where people of color can expect fair and equal treatment from the criminal justice system. We’ve lost family and friends and beloved community members. The space between each ner n’shamah, the candle of each soul, has seemed vast indeed.
But Hanukkah is a holiday of healing through play. There is a story in “The Power of Light,” a collection of eight Hanukkah stories by the great Yiddish author Isaac Bashevis Singer, from which I and Rabbi Louis Polisson of Congregation Or Atid in Wayland read at a recent Hanukkah-themed evening in our communities’ joint Yiddish cultural exploration series this year. The story is called “The Extinguished Lights.” The unquiet ghost of a little girl, Altele, blows out all the Hanukkah candles in her village, the year after she dies just before the Hanukkah she longed to survive until. Altele appears in a dream to her grandmother and offers a remedy to “to bring peace to her soul.” She asks that all the townspeople celebrate the last night of Hanukkah by her grave. The rabbi agrees, and “not only older children, but even the younger ones, were taken to the graveyard. Lights were kindled, blessings were recited, the women served the pancakes with jam that they had prepared. The children played dreidel on the frozen snow, which was as smooth as ice. A golden light shone over the little girl’s grave, a sign that her soul enjoyed the Hanukkah celebration. Never before or after did the graveyard seem so festive as on that eighth night of Hanukkah.”
For me, this is the power of Hanukkah. We keep playing, we keep dancing, we keep singing. We alchemize the memories of oppression and loss. They tried to suppress us and failed? We’ll throw the dreidel in memory of the Seleucids. We celebrate more than the brute fact of survival. We make our survival be for good. And the power of Hanukkah touches individual loss also. We all have what to heal from. We think gently of our dead, and their memories are not for trammels but for blessings. Hanukkah allows us to bring our loved ones who are no longer with us into the warmth the candles cast, and blurs the outlines of our grief. When I see my sons light the candles, I feel my parents present too, without sadness. For all that Hanukkah’s story commemorates a war, it is a holiday that brings peace to our own unquiet selves.
Hanukkah candles are lit in memory of victory. For Jews, memory is victory. Our Hanukkah customs allow play to turn even the hardest memories into sources of joy and pride, with respect for their gravity but leached of their bitterness. I invite you to breathe into the spaces between the candles this year, even as you enjoy their light. I invite you to welcome your losses into those spaces, and let them sit in with your joys, and see how peaceful they can become with each other. May this Hanukkah be a blessing for you.
Cantor Vera Broekhuysen leads Temple Emanu-El of Haverhill.