Chanukah models of courage


My 4-year-old son is obsessed with superheroes, dressing up at every opportunity as the superhero du jour to do battle with the bad guys lurking around the corner. (My 2-year-old daughter is just as enthusiastic, but at her age all she can really muster is a “meanie” face.)

From a developmental perspective, I know this fantasy play is his way of exercising control over a world he is learning is increasingly out of his control. But I also see other qualities — his desire to be strong, to stand up for the good guys — in short, to be courageous.

Becoming courageous doesn’t happen overnight. It develops when children have opportunities to stand up for what’s right and to take responsible risks. Through experiences my husband and I provide, and the stories we tell them, we can lay some groundwork.

As I think about a central message of the Chanukah story and the way I want to portray it to my kids, models of courage abound. From Judah Maccabee to Judith and Hannah and her seven sons, heroes and heroines fought for the right to be different, to be Jews who refused to assimilate into the prevailing Hellenistic culture.

When Antiochus Epiphanes came to power, and observance of the most basic mitzvot (circumcision, Shabbat celebration and kashrut) were turned into capital offenses, their acts of courage formed the basis of a central narrative of the Chanukah story that has been passed down through the generations.

Consider Judah Maccabee, whose army used guerrilla tactics and religious zeal to defeat the stronger Assyrian-Greek army. He forced the Assyrian Greeks to rescind the policies that forbade Jewish practice, and in 164 B.C.E. liberated the Temple in Jerusalem and rededicated it as a place of Jewish worship.

Consider Judith, who did her part to prevent the siege of Jerusalem in her hometown of Bethulia by seducing Holfenes, the Assyrian-Greek army general, and then decapitating him. Her bravery is so highly esteemed by the rabbis that it is because of her act of courage that Jewish women are obligated to light Chanukah candles.

And consider Hannah and her seven sons, who refused to bow down to Zeus and Antiochus and eat nonkosher meat. The Book of Maccabees relates that each of her sons and then her mother were tortured to death.

These acts of courage seem extreme and even unpalatable to our modern era — what woman would sacrifice her son, not to mention all seven? And aren’t we a peace-loving people who should not extol brute force?

But they also lead us to a deeper question about the nature of courage. Are there values and beliefs for which we are willing to make great sacrifices, and if any of these values or beliefs were to be violated, would we be stirred to action?

While these figures present us with one narrative of the Chanukah story — of heroism in battle and martyrdom — a second narrative is favored by the ancient rabbis. The story begins with the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem and the faith that the Jews had that the small cruse of oil, which should have lasted for one day only, could last for eight (in time for others to travel and get more oil).

The second narrative downplays the military victory won by human hands and elevates the story to one in which our faith in God and God’s miracles are kindled. It reminds us that courage is born when we continue to have faith and hope even in our darkest time. Having faith in itself is an important kind of courage.

While the call to be courageous is central to the Chanukah story — spiritually or physically — it is also daunting. But the rabbis offered another way for us to understand how to live a courageous life and be our own heroes.

“Who is a hero?” the rabbis ask. “One who overcomes his urges?” (Mishna, Pirke Avot 4:1).

Overcoming our most natural desires and exercising personal restraint is another kind of heroism. This is a kind of everyday courage.

When we are present in a difficult conversation with someone we care about even though our impulse is to leave, we are a hero. When we resist the urge to say something that we know will offend another person, even if we think it is warranted, we are courageous. When we have vowed not to feed a habit that is destructive to us, and when tempted and resist (a smoke, an extra piece of chocolate cake), we are being our own heroes.

This Chanukah, celebrate all of the dimensions of courage by dedicating each night to one of them:

Candle 1 to the classic Chanukah heroes of Judah Maccabee, Judith and Hannah.

Candle 2 to the courageous acts of our children who welcome a new kid to the school, speak out against bullying or have faith that the next day at school might be a little better than today.

Candle 3 to someone in your community who took up a cause you believe in and fought for it.

Candle 4 to someone in your family — perhaps a parent or grandparent — and a courageous act they performed during their lives.

Candle 5 to American and Israeli soldiers who are fighting to protect values and ideals that are sacred to us.

Candle 6 to the courage that you have exercised by restraint — with a co-worker, spouse, child, friend or parent.

Candle 7 to a person in your life who exemplifies courage the most.

Candle 8 to that quality of courage in ourselves that enables us to bring light into dark places and for the energy to continue to stoke the embers of our own sense of courage.

Stories and essays and pictures illuminate holiday


“There are many lights in light,” according to a line in the Talmud. Hillel’s words refer to the blessing over the Havdalah candle, but can be applied no less to Chanukah.

The most exquisite of new books for the season is not about Chanukah, but about light. An oversize volume, Sam Fink’s “The Book of Exodus” (Welcome Books) includes 40 watercolor paintings of the sky, each hand lettered with a chapter of Exodus, in Hebrew and English.

In an introduction, artist and calligrapher Fink writes of connecting “the infinite wisdom of the words of Exodus with the never-ending magic of the sky.” He “embroiders the delicacy of the words” into the sky, fitting lines of text into the movement of the clouds. Facing pages include the English text in type and his skyscape paintings with their handwritten English and Hebrew text. The book divides Exodus — described by Fink as “a cry for freedom” — by chapters, as opposed to the weekly Torah readings.

The project began as a personal gift to the author’s family and then was expanded. Fink worked on this for four years, inspired by the custom, seldom invoked, that he learned from his rabbi, that a man copy his own Bible before the end of his days.

Chanukah’s many letters, many spellings and many possibilities are explored in “How to Spell Chanukah: 18 Writers Celebrate 8 Nights of Light” edited by Emily Franklin (Algonquin). The essays are humorous, sometimes nostalgic, irreverent, autobiographical sketches. Young writers including Elisa Albert, Ed Schwarzschild, Adam Langer, Amy Klein of The Jewish Journal, Tova Mirvis, Steve Almond, Joanna Smith Rakoff and others describe and dish about family, rituals, love, Christmas envy, too many latkes, chocolate gelt and “Judas Maccabaeus-shaped candies in blue-and-white tinfoil.

Joshua Neuman, publisher of Heeb magazine, writes about his short-lived efforts as a salesman, his family trade. His immigrant grandfather had made his way convincing people they needed things. The then-25-year-old aspiring writer, with a graduate degree in the philosophy of religion who taught Hebrew school, tries selling stuffed animal mufflers called Creature Comfies — his father’s brainstorm of an idea — to major department stores in the weeks leading up to Christmas. He takes out his earrings, prints business cards, puts on an old suit and soon gets escorted out of Lord & Taylor by security.

Eric Orner contributes a comic strip, “Traditions Break,” in which a young woman has nowhere to go over winter break when she gets thrown out of her dorm room, and the Chanukah package her mother sent is locked up in the closed mail room. Her louse of a boyfriend, Tommy, “the kind of Jew who thinks Maccabees are the fancy nuts people bring back from Hawaiian vacations,” has left her behind while he’s skiing with friends. But an expected new friend takes her in and crafts the “ugliest, loveliest menorah I’ve ever seen” out of foil.

In “Eight Nights,” Laura Dave describes seven nights of Chanukah over her life, where she has been in many places and with many people. She spends the eighth night at her parent’s home in the suburbs, where she naps in her childhood bedroom and takes in the scene with gratitude of being surrounded by family. Before her father drives her to the station for the train ride back to her own new home in the city, she loads up on toilet paper, batteries and fresh apples, things her parents insist she won’t find in the city. As they’re pulling out of the driveway, she remembers all the nights that came before and catches a glimpse: “The Chanukah lights in the window — shining, like eight simple stories — in the night sky.”

For all of these essayists, with their different styles, grudges and dilemmas, sweet and bittersweet memories, Chanukah counts for more than eight nights.

In “The Golden Dreydl,” illustrations by Ilene Winn Lederer (Charlesbridge, ages 8 to 11), Ellen Kushner turns to folklore, fantasy and humor. The host and writer of the public radio series “Sound & Spirit,” Kushner has narrated performances of this original story with the Shirim Klezmer Orchestra around the country. The book opens with a young girl named Sara, who’s upset that her family’s house looks so ordinary next to all the other houses on their block that are so beautifully lit up for Christmas. She’s bored with Chanukah.

At her aunt’s Chanukah party, she is presented with a large, shiny dreydl, which turns out to be a magical dreydl princess who takes her on a great adventure through worlds of biblical figures, demons, fools and other strange folks. Toward the end, Sara gets caught up in a dance where the letters of the dreydl along with every letter of the alphabet combine to make word after word, “as if the world itself were being created in letters.” She awakens into golden light.

“The Best Hanukkah Ever” by Barbara Diamond Goldin, illustrated by Avi Katz (Marshall Cavendish) is a funny and touching story about the Knoodle family and their misdirected efforts at buying each other “the perfect gift, one that will be treasured forever.” Children of all ages will enjoy this story, which seems like a meeting between “The Gift of the Magi,” O’Henry’s classic tale of giving and receiving, and “Tales of Chelm.”

A Sephardic custom of the holiday serves as the centerpiece of “Hanukkah Moon” by Deborah Da Costa, illustrated by Gosia Mosz (Kar-Ben, ages 6 to 10). A young girl named Isobel visits her Aunt Luisa, newly arrived from Mexico with her cat named Paco. They celebrate Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the new month, when the new moon appears. In this enchanting story that features a tree of birds, a dreydl is called trompo, guests knock open a fanciful pinata and wish each other Feliz Januca, and they have couscous with their latkes.

Another story that unfolds on Rosh Chodesh, “Mayer Aaron Levi and His Lemon Tree” by Tami Lehman-Wilzig (Gefen) is a sweet story about a family and a tree that is passed down through generations. Not only has the tree lived on among Mayer Aaron Levi’s descendants, but so has the story of his tremendous generosity.

No Rat King, no fairies — just one ‘MeshugaNutcracker’


Not long ago, Scott and Shannon Guggenheim’s 4-year-old daughter, Lily, looked up at them and asked when Santa would be bringing her Christmas presents.

“To say that we, as creators of a Chanukah musical, were shocked is an understatement,” recalls Shannon Guggenheim. “[Lily] is already feeling the pull so many Jewish kids feel. She probably went drifting off to sleep dreaming of sugar plum fairies.”

That Chanukah musical, “The MeshugaNutcracker!” is the Guggenheims’ tuneful contribution for children like Lily, who need an antidote to the ubiquitous Christmas blitz that occurs every year.

The Bay Area-based couple co-wrote, produced, choreographed and directed the holiday staple. Drawing on music from Tchaikovsky’s famous “Nutcracker” ballet, “The MeshugaNutcracker!” has been a hit with Jewish families since its 2003 debut in the Bay Area.

Now, says Shannon, the show is expanding its reach, playing cities like Seattle and Scottsdale, Ariz., for the first time this Chanukah. That’s in addition to runs in San Francisco, San Jose, Sacramento and Los Angeles.

This year, six of eight cast members are new, the music has been re-orchestrated to give it a more Broadway feel, and a newly constructed proscenium arch will be in place for opening night.

“It’s an homage to Chagall,” Shannon says of the goat-and-fiddler decorated arch. “We still have the dreidel as the centerpiece. And now we have a dream cast of amazing musicians. In the past we had actors who sing. This year we have singer-actor-dancers.”

“The MeshugaNutcracker!” tells the tale of eight citizens of Chelm, the mythical shtetl of fools, who gather every year to perform at their Chanukah festival. Through the course of the two-act musical, each tells a story of Chanukah heroes from the time of the Maccabees through today.

Shannon wrote the lyrics and Scott directs, while both wrote the musical’s book based on stories adapted by Eric A. Kimmel (author of “The Jar of Fools”) and Peninnah Schram and Steven M. Rosman, (authors of “Eight Stories for Eight Nights”). Stephen Guggenheim, Scott’s brother, provides musical direction.

The musical is just one mainstay of the theatrical couple. Their company, Guggenheim Entertainment, provides entertainment, marketing and support services for corporate and private clients (think “holiday show for the mall”), and their National Jewish Theater Festival develops Jewish-themed stage productions for every audience.

But “MeshugaNutcracker!” holds a special place in their hearts, largely because their own daughter fits the target-audience profile.

“It’s no joke,” adds Shannon. “We say it in the show: ‘Santa has the last laugh/His holiday lasts a month and half.’ I’m not saying what we’re doing is brain surgery, but it occurred to us that it’s a Jewish parent’s cultural responsibility to take their kids to this show. It’s not Tiny Tim or the Mouse King.”

Shannon, a Jew-by-choice, stresses that she and her husband are not engaging in Christmas bashing.

“Santa is a good guy,” she says. “But Jews have something else right here in their backyard. They can say ‘I own that and I am proud of that.'”

Though with each passing year the Guggenheims have taken their show on a longer and longer road, they are reluctant to license the musical to other theater companies. Call it creative control, call it a labor of love, but the two plan on keeping “MeshugaNutcracker!” to themselves for those eight crazy nights and beyond.

However, eternal as the lights of Chanukah may be, the holiday comes around but once on the calendar, which can be a drawback to a theater company.

“Sometimes,” Shannon says with a laugh, “we kick ourselves for having a show that’s only six weeks a year.”

Performances of “The MeshugaNutcracker!” take place at the University of Judaism on Saturday, Dec. 16 at 7:30 p.m.; and on Sunday, Dec. 17 at 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. $35-$50. 15600 Mulholland Drive, just off the 405 Freeway. For more information, call (818) 986-7332 or visit www.kcdancers.org.

Books: Wrap up new worlds for your young readers


Many inns throughout the Mid-Atlantic states claim that George Washington slept here or there, but a new book makes an altogether new claim about the first president: that he learned about Chanukah from a Polish-born soldier at Valley Forge in 1777, when he noticed the young man lighting a candle.

“Hanukkah at Valley Forge,” by Stephen Krensky and illustrated by Greg Harlin (Dutton), is a retelling of the Chanukah story, framed by a story — based on factual research enhanced by a leap of faith — about George Washington during the Revolutionary War. The general is surveying his troops, concerned about the cold and their poor conditions. When he sees a soldier speaking softly and lighting a candle, he engages him in conversation about his home in Poland, where the young soldier’s family would have to light their candles in secret.

While the soldier explains the origins of the holiday, the commander-in-chief listens intently and then remarks about the brave tale he has heard, “Perhaps we are not as lost as our enemies would have us believe. I rejoice in the Macabees’ success, though it is long past.”

He adds, “And it pleases me to think that miracles may still be possible.”

The story, as the author notes, has its basis on a 1778 meeting Washington had at the home of Michael Hart, a Jewish merchant in Easton, Pa., during Chanukah. When Hart began to tell the story of Chanukah to his guest, Washington told about how he had heard the story of the holiday the year before from a soldier. Hart’s daughter recorded this story in her diary.
The dialogue is based in part on Washington’s own writings to give the text an authentic feel. Harlin’s dreamy paintings are full of light.

Another retelling of the traditional Chanukah story can be found in “The Ziz and the Hanukkah Miracle” by Jacqueline Jules, illustrated by Katherine Janus Kahn (Kar-Ben). In this case, the adventures of a large yellow bird with bright red wings are the vehicle for telling of the Macabees and the oil that lasted for eight days.

In “Bubbie and Zadie Come to My House” by Daniel Halevi Bloom, illustrations by Alex Meilichson (Square One), a magical older couple — a wise and warm set of grandparents — pay a visit on a family who are not their relatives on the first night of Chanukah. The Bubbie and Zadie float in, as though in a Chagall painting. They are people of great heart, and when they leave, they are missed. Readers are invited to write to Bubbie and Zadie and are given an address.

According to the publisher, every letter will be answered either by the author or by some actual bubbies and zadies who reside in a senior citizen residence in San Rafael, called “Bubbie and Zadies L’Chaim House.

This is a new edition of a book first published in 1985. When that book came out, thousands of children, and adults, too, wrote letters. Now, they can send the letters by e-mail.

Check for These Other Picture Books:

“Before You Were Born” retold by Howard Schwartz, illustrated by Kristina Swarner (Deborah Brodie/Roaring Book Press), is based on the Midrash, or rabbinic legend, about the guardian angel who teaches unborn children the secrets of the world; the child then forgets it all when born. Folklorist Schwartz first heard this story as a child from his mother. The book, a winner of the Koret International Jewish Book Award, features Swarner’s radiant artwork.
“The Jewish Alphabet” by Janet Clement, illustrated by Albert G. Rodriguez (Pelican) uses the ABCs to illustrate Jewish concepts and ideas. More sophisticated than usual alphabet books, this pairs the letter U with unmistakable candles every Friday night, and V with victory for religious freedom, linking the letter with the eight nights of Chanukah.

“Izzy Hagbah” by J.J. Gross, illustrated by Ari Binus (Pitspopany), is a lovely and uncommon story about a muscular guy with mighty forearms. Izzy attended shul regularly and insisted on doing the mitzvah of hagbah, lifting the Torah at the end of the reading. Dressed much more casually than the other shulgoers, he lifted the Torah as if it were made of feathers, spreading it so that nine or 10 columns were showing, rather than the usual three or four, or at most five. But no one else in this shul lifted the Torah but Izzy, even as he got older. The congregants, who were a tight-knit group, knew nothing about him, not even his last name. Finally, one Yom Kippur, Izzy himself is lifted by the words of the Torah.

In “Dreamer from the Village: The Story of Marc Chagall” by Michelle Markel, illustrated by Emily Lisker (Henry Holt), the author describes how the young Moshe (later Marc) Chagall knew early on that he didn’t want to spend his days hurling barrels of herring at a factory like his father. A poor student in both cheder and high school, he began to paint. His family didn’t like these early works and, in fact, his sisters would wipe their shoes on them. He was then sent to art school and while painting, he felt content. Later, he went to Paris, and his career flourished. Lisker paints in a folk art style, based on Chagall’s own paintings, where cows are green and people float.

“I am Marc Chagall” by Bimba Landmann (Eerdman’s) similarly tells the story of Chagall’s early life and career, in the voice of the artist himself. He explains that his childhood dreams of a bright future, of doing something different from those around him, made him happy, “like I was flying over Vitebsk, over all of Russia.” Landmann’s illustrations are bright collages in the style of the painter, using fabric, found objects, small constructions and sequin threads.

For Young Readers:

“The Dolls’ Journey to Eretz-Israel” by Abraham Regelson (Biblio Books) is a vintage book, now back in print. The author was a well-known and award-winning poet in Israel who made aliyah with his family from America. He wrote this story about his daughter’s dolls, at first left behind in America, but later sent across the ocean in 1933. The book was acclaimed by many Israelis, and the late songwriter Naomi Shemer described it as her favorite book. This edition was translated into English by the author’s daughter, Sharona, the actual “mother” of the dolls.

Through God’s Eyes


 

We call it the Festival of Lights, but Chanukah starts in a very dark place.

It begins with two stories, each very serious. One

tells of a severely outnumbered band of Jews who fought a powerful enemy for religious freedom.

And there’s the other, even more painful tale of Jew vs. Jew, of the Macabees struggling with widespread Jewish assimilation into the culture and religion of that enemy.

In many ways, Chanukah represents the most painful aspects of Jewish history in one full account: the Jewish community facing threats both from outside and within.

The tales are so painful, in fact, that thinking about them can be depressing. And what’s worse, many aspects of Chanukah — bloody battles, inner fighting, treacherous choices between life and death — have been reenacted over and over again, throughout the centuries.

But despite the seriousness, despite the painful, dark history of Chanukah, we spend eight days in lightness. We play, we sing, we eat — we remember the tales of the Maccabees with latkes, gelt, songs and games. For us, Chanukah is a party — bright, sweet, joyous. It’s serious, but we’re playful.

The stories — dark and sobering — are recalled with light and celebration. How do the bloody battles of Chanukah translate into a ritual of fun?

The answer can found in the dreidel.

The Hebrew letters on each side of the toy — nun, gimmel, heh, and shin — famously serve as an acronym for neis gadol haya sham — “a great miracle happened there” — a reference to the miraculous eight-day staying power of the little bit of oil lighting the menorah in the Holy Temple when it was re-taken by the Maccabees.

Like Chanukah, the dreidel is a combination of intensity and lightheartedness. Historically, it was initially adopted by Jews not as a game or toy but as a front, a ruse used by persecuted Torah scholars who were forbidden by non-Jewish authorities from study. Pretending to play a game, rabbis would actually teach their students Torah, enabling the traditions to be passed to each new generation.

How fitting then to have those same toys in the hands of happy, free Jewish children today, spinning the dreidel as a simple game after learning Torah in security. The dreidel represents that same relationship between terror and confidence, between threats and joy, darkness and light.

The spinning top is actually even more than just a reminder of persecutions past and more than a simple game for happy children. The Jewish mystical tradition teaches that the four letters on the sides of the dreidel have a wholly different significance. The nun is for neshama (soul); the gimmel is for guf (body); the shin is actually a sin, for sechel (mind); and the heh is for ha-kol (everything).

The playful little toy is a miniature but complete person: body, mind and soul — everything wrapped up together. And like the dreidel, we are also a combination of the playful and the serious. On one hand, we are light and fun and lively. But on the other hand, we spin out of control. We live in chaos.

A human being is a dreidel: busy, moving. We reach near vertigo, tilting and spinning until at last we finally drop.

Like the Chanukah tales, our personal narratives are marked by difficult choices and numerous battles, both external and internal. A human being is a dreidel: spinning and falling, spinning and falling. Yet we come up, again and again. How can that be?

Because, as the dreidel tells us: neis gadol haya sham. Great miracles happen, not just in ancient times but now, constantly, for us every single day. We spin and fall, but thanks to God’s miracles, we stand up to try again — as a nation and as individuals. That’s serious stuff. But it’s also worth celebrating.

This column originally appeared in The Journal on Dec. 14, 2001.

Rabbi Shawn Fields-Meyer is instructor of Bible and liturgy at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism and creator of Ozreinu, a spiritual support group for special-needs families.

 

Maccabee Meaning Changes With Time


 

The oldest tradition of Chanukah is that it celebrates many stories: freedom from religious oppression, Jews fighting back against their oppressors and the communal struggle about what it means to be and live as a Jew. It is the story of unexpected fuel found in unexpected places, providing light to an entire nation — and it is the story of miracles and redemption in moments of darkness and despair.

These stories have been told in many languages: Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic, Latin, Yiddish and English. They’ve been told by every kind of Jew, and even by non-Jews, from almost every nation on the face of the earth. They are tales of a people on a journey looking for ways to confront the challenges that lay before them, and celebrating the victories they experience along the way.

However, in American Jewish life, Chanukah is often described as the story of the Jewish fight against assimilation. Judah Maccabee and his forces arose to defeat their Hellenistic persecutors. The underlying premise of this telling is the presumption of a pure Judaism struggling against external influences that would pollute it. Like most stories about the fight against assimilation, there is a false dichotomy in this retelling between Judaism and the larger world. The complexity and nuance that have defined Jewish life in every age are removed from the story.

Ironically, the Chanukah story, with its many tellings, preserves those nuances better than almost any other holiday in Jewish tradition. It celebrates a variety of ways to be Jewish — ways which have changed through the generations, the challenges and the times.

Whether in ancient times after the destruction of the Temple, when God felt very far away and the rabbis told the story to help bring God back or in more recent history, when early Zionists told the story in ways that emboldened them to return to the Land of Israel, our tellings of the Chanukah story have invited new interpretations, questions and meanings, each helping a generation of Jews rise to the challenge of its moment in history. In fact, the richness of Jewish tradition is its remarkable capacity to embody many forms of Jewish expression. Failing to recognize this on Chanukah would be truly absurd.

On a holiday that reminds us, among many things, of the danger of idolatry, we dare not turn Jewish identity into an idol. Anything can be an idol, including the definition of what it means to be Jewish. Idolatry is what happens whenever we falsely make absolute what is by definition infinite. In telling of the fight against idolatry, we must be careful not to turn our own tradition into an idol — presuming a static definition of what it means to be Jewish and how to contribute to the future of the Jewish people.

While no one can say what Jewish life will look like in the future, we need to continue the oldest tradition of Chanukah by inviting people to enter the process of creating that future. After 2,000 years of playing dreidel, a game of chance that epitomizes the precariousness of Jewish life, we now have an unprecedented opportunity to play a new kind of game — one that reflects the blessings, challenges, and possibilities of this moment in American Jewish life.

Contrary to much in Jewish life, this is a game that everyone can play and win. Here is how it works:

Answer these questions by telling your own story, based on your own experience. For each question, try to find an answer that describes something you think of as typically Jewish, and a second that describes something you don’t think of as typically Jewish. There are no wrong or right answers.

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• Which foods or meals evoke Jewish associations for you?

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• In what places have you been where you felt particularly Jewish?

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• On what occasions did you feel very Jewish?

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• Who is a “real Jewish hero” for you? (That person doesn’t have to be a Jew.)

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• What makes your relationships Jewish?

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• Bonus question: Is there something important in your life that you really wish was a part of what you usually think of as being Jewish?

To score, give yourself one point for each question for which you can give at least one answer. Since each question can be answered for both expected and unexpected circumstances, the maximum score for the five questions is 10. Adding the bonus question for three points, the maximum score is 13.

Actually, forget the points. What counts is not numbers, but being in the game. If you play, you win. The only way to lose this game is not to play at all.

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is the vice president of CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

 

My Chanukah Miracle


I’m an experienced multidater, so I’m usually pretty good at juggling men.

But this Chanukah, I think I dropped a couple balls. Every year I throw a latkes-n’-liquor, dreidel-til-you-drop, anti-Antiochus Chanukah rager. It’s a typical "they attacked us, we lived, let’s eat" Jew crew celebration. And yenta that I am, I might have, kind of, sort of, invited all my men to my simcha. Marc, Alex, Scott, Dan, Evan, even Todd. They’ll all be there. What was I thinking? I need them all together like I need a loch in kop, a hole in the head. The Maccabees’ oil lasted eight nights. But the real miracle of Chanukah will be if I make it through just this one.

It’s not that my men don’t know I’m seeing other people, but I don’t usually let them see each other. Like my milk and meat dishes, I keep ’em separated. And now the whole thing is going to treif.

I invited two guys I’m dating, six guys I used to date, eight guys I’d like to date and one kid that my father bought for two zuzim. How did I get myself into this situation? There will be more eligible men in my apartment than tribbles on the Enterprise. Damn it, Jim, I’m a dater not a miracle worker. Sure, Chanukah celebrates the struggle of the few against the many, but this is ridiculous. I’ll be totally outnumbered. Paging Miss Davis, your party is waiting for you in the disaster department.

But what was I supposed to do? Pick one guy’s name out of a yarmulke? Draw a straw? Roll a die? Spin a dreidel? Nun, I invite none. Hey, I invite half. Gimmel, I invite all. And Shin, I send some back in the dating pool? I may be stressed, but I’m not stupid. A good mensch is hard to find.

Instead, I’ll be the host with the most — men, that is — running around the party, burning my Chanukah candle at both ends. I can picture it now: The boys will all arrive Jewish Standard Time, looking mmm, mmm good. I’ll spend some time with each, but even a professional dater like myself can’t be all things to all men all the time. If I don’t flirt wisely, I could lose as many men as my Chicago Bears have lost games. Perhaps I’ll run a zone defense, keeping Todd near the latkes, distracting Evan with my kugel and charming Marc with my cookies.

But eventually someone will get peanut butter in my chocolate. My men will get all mixed up. They’ll mingle, swap stories, compare notes, plot revenge. Oy, I’m in trouble. Danger Will Robinson, your social life will self-destruct in five minutes.

Or perhaps not. Maybe I’m making a Mount Sinai out of a molehill. The guys know I’ll be playing happy hostess, so they’ll arrive at my party expecting my much-divided attention. Besides, Jewish men welcome a little competition. Especially when it comes to dating. They always want the woman they can’t have, the one who’s hard to get. I may actually look hotter to these boys once they realize they’re not the only one looking to make a little sufganiyot. This whole mishegoss could work to my benefit. At the end of the night, I may end up on top.

But in case I don’t, I’ll exercise my eight-day clause and promise to celebrate Chanukah alone with each guy on another night. Just the thought of a private dreidel-spinning session with me should keep them satisfied until then.

But the real question isn’t why did I invite so many men, but rather, why do I date so many men? Why can’t I settle down?

The Hebrew word Chanukah means "to dedicate." If I were truly ready to dedicate myself to any one of these men, I’d ditch the others faster than J-Lo drops a husband. I’d be ready to make my man for now my man forever. After all, most of my peers have already picked a mate for life. They’re done. All sales final. No refunds. No exchanges.

But I’m still shopping around. I’ve dated a lot of men who know how to light my candle, but I’m still looking for my shamas. A man who stands taller than the rest. A latke-eating, Maxim-reading, football-cheering, tallit-wearing babe who makes my heart laugh, my mind dance and can keep my fire burning for at least eight long nights.

So until I meet my match, I’ll date a whole congregation of hotties and invite them all to my parties. And since men are the masters of the multidate, I think my guys will understand.

But just to be safe, I’m leaving town for New Year’s.

Carin Davis, a freelance writer, can be reached at sports@jewishjournal.com

Beyond Miracles and Maccabees


My mother was surprised when I said I was reviewing Chanukah books for kids. “Is there a lot out there?” she asked.

I don’t remember ever coming across a Chanukah book growing up. Now there are titles geared for all ages and interests — historical accounts, folk tales, activities, even poignant literature.

Ages: Baby-Preschool

“My First Hanukkah Board Book” (DK Publishing, $6.99) is a good introduction to the holiday. This book combines the story of Chanukah with its practices. Photographs of actual objects and costumed children acting out scenes from the Chanukah story reinforce a sense of involvement for young readers. In addition, the laminated cardboard construction is great for car trips and flights.

Another special story is “Happy Hanukkah, Biscuit!” by Alyssa Satin Capucilli (Harper Festival, $6.99). The familiar puppy accompanies his owner to a Chanukah party at a friend’s house where, in typical Biscuit fashion, he gets into all sorts of mischief. Despite his being young and clumsy, no one gets annoyed with Biscuit. This gives the tale the added dimension of modeling patience.

Ages: 4-8

David A. Carter’s “Chanukah Bugs” (Little Simon, $10.95) is a delight. It’s a pop-up book, and every page features a wrapped present along with the question, “Who’s in the box on the first (second, third, etc.) night of Chanukah?” Opening lids or untying bows reveal “a storyteller bug,” “a dreidel bug,” “bugs who sing and dance out loud” and more. This is sure to be a giggly favorite.

For kids already familiar with the holiday, anticipating it may be the best part. “The Hanukkah Mice” by Ronne Randall (Chronicle Books, $15.95) would be part of my anticipation ritual if I were 4 years old! Three young mice emerge from their hole every night of Chanukah hoping to see the menorah. They come upon dreidels, feast on latke crumbs and discover beautifully wrapped presents. With the help of their mother, they get to see the menorah set aglow on the last night. This book is so sweet that grownups won’t mind a bit when little ones pull it out for the hundredth time.

I0n “Light the Lights!: A Story About Celebrating Hanukkah and Christmas” by Margaret Moorman (Scholastic, $5.99) we meet Emma. Emma lives in an interfaith family and “Light the Lights” chronicles her experience of wintertime festivities. Even more than what the story does tell, this book is notable for what it does not include: there is no tension, no competition over family allegiances, no hint that these holidays are part of different traditions. I imagine this reflects the dreams of more than a few interfaith couples.

As much as “Light the Lights” has a contemporary grounding, “Zigazak! A Magical Hanukkah Night” by Eric A. Kimmel (Random House Children’s Books, $15.95) comes straight from the heart of tradition. Set in the Chasidic past, the action opens with two devils causing havoc in a town celebrating Chanukah. Latkes fly, musical instruments play themselves, and people are terrified. Only the rabbi is unafraid. He summons the evil spirits, diffuses their power and when they refuse the rabbi’s offer to turn them toward goodness, he destroys them. The question of how to address dark forces is particularly timely in the post-Sept. 11 era. It is also a mystical theme of Chanukah, symbolized in the lighting of the menorah.

In “Nine Spoons: A Chanukah Story” by Marci Stillerman (Hachai, $11.95), the author’s background as an award-winning journalist is evident from the very first line: “The entire family had enjoyed Oma’s famous latkes down to the last delicious crumb, and the children were finished playing the dreidel game.” Now what? You wonder, and you aren’t sure whether to linger over the drawing or turn the page to find out. What follows is a grandmother’s Holocaust memory of Chanukah in the camps. Both the writing and the illustrations convey the gravity of the time without actually imparting fear. What comes through is an ultimately uplifting feeling, and the timelessness of the holiday’s message.

Ages: 9-12

Those who have celebrated several Chanukahs will relate to “The Dreidel Champ and Other Holiday Stories” by Smadar Shir Sidi, (Adama, $13.95). The title story in the collection features a boy who wants very much to beat his cousins in their annual game. In the process, he learns about healthy competition, family love between generations and the importance of trying his best. Chanukah is the point of departure, but those are the real themes here.

Ages: Teens and Adults

Dalia Hardof Renberg’s “The Complete Family Guide to Jewish Holidays” (Adama, $23) offers just what the title suggests. The Chanukah section begins with a highly readable story of the holiday. There are special sections on women as well as sidebars on specific customs. This is followed by sheet music for several well-loved songs. Craft projects feature clear directions. Finally there are recipes for traditional holiday foods. This book is equally enjoyable when read by an individual or shared with friends and family.

All Ages

“The Power of Light: Eight Stories for Hanukkah” by Isaac Bashevis Singer (Sunburst, $8.95) is one of the most heartwarming collections I’ve ever seen. The stories connect to Chanukah, but reach far beyond it. These are stories about life, and all the best it has to offer — warmth, hope and faith. Singer’s view is summed up by the words of a character in “A Chanukah Evening in My Parents’ Home”: “I didn’t preach. I told them a story. I wanted them to know that what God could do 2,000 years ago, he can also do in our time.” Readers younger than 12 may be too young to grasp the beauty here. None are too old.

I once saw a quote that read, “Nothing’s as good as an old friend, except a new one that’s fit to make into an old one.” So it is true with traditions — and Chanukah reading tops the list.

Serious Play


We call it the Festival of Lights, but Chanukah starts in a very dark place.

It begins with two stories, each very serious. One tells of a severely outnumbered band of Jews who fought a powerful enemy for religious freedom. And there’s the other, even more painful tale of Jew vs. Jew, of the Macabees struggling with widespread Jewish assimilation into the culture and religion of that enemy. In many ways, Chanukah represents the most painful aspects of Jewish history, in one full account: the Jewish community facing threats both from outside and within.

The tales are so painful, in fact, that thinking about them can be depressing. And what’s worse, many aspects of Chanukah — bloody battles, inner fighting, treacherous choices between life and death — have been reenacted over and over again, throughout the centuries.

But despite the seriousness, despite the painful, dark history of Chanukkah, we spend eight days in lightness. We play, we sing, we eat — we remember the tales of the Macabees with latkes, gelt, songs and games. For us, Chanukah is a party — bright, sweet, joyous.

It’s serious, but we’re playful. The stories — dark and sobering — are recalled with light and celebration. How do the bloody battles of Chanukah translate into a ritual of fun?

The answer can found in the dreidel.

The Hebrew letters on each side of the toy — nun, gimmel, heh, and shin — famously serve as an acronym for neis gadol haya sham — “a great miracle happened there” — a reference to the miraculous eight-day staying power of the little bit of oil lighting the menorah in the Holy Temple when it was re-taken by the Macabees.

Like Chanukah itself, the dreidel is a combination of intensity and lightheartedness. Historically, it was initially adopted by Jews not as a game or toy, but as a front, a ruse used by persecuted Torah scholars who were forbidden by non-Jewish authorities from study. Pretending to play a game, rabbis would actually teach their students Torah, enabling the traditions to be passed to each new generation. How fitting then, to have those same toys in the hands of happy, free Jewish children today, spinning the dreidel as a simple game after learning Torah in security. The dreidel represents that same relationship between terror and confidence, between threats and joy, darkness and light.

The spinning top is actually even more than just a reminder of persecutions past, and more than a simple game for happy children. The Jewish mystical tradition teaches that the four letters on the sides of the dreidel have a wholly different significance. The nun is for neshama (soul); the gimmel is for guf (body); the shin is actually a sin, for sechel (mind); and the heh is for ha-kol (everything).

The playful little toy is a miniature, but complete person: body, mind, and soul — everything wrapped up together. And like the dreidel, we are also a combination of the playful and the serious. On one hand, we are light and fun and lively. But on the other hand, we spin out of control. We live in chaos. A human being is a dreidel: busy, moving. We reach near-vertigo, tilting and spinning until at last we finally drop. Like the Chanukah tales, our personal narratives are marked by difficult choices and numerous battles, both external and internal. A human being is a dreidel: spinning and falling, spinning and falling.

Yet we come up, again and again. How can that be?

Because, as the dreidel tells us: neis gadol haya sham. Great miracles happen, not just in ancient times, but now, constantly, for us, every single day. We spin and fall, but thanks to God’s miracles, we stand up to try again — as a nation and as individuals. That’s serious stuff. But it’s also worth celebrating.