Thanksgivukkah, Emma Lazarus & the Maccabees: Embracing our dual identity

There is something much deeper to “Thanksgivukkah” than sweet potato latkes. It is an opportunity to celebrate the blessing of our dual identity as Americans and Jews.

In 1883, the Jewish-Sephardic-American poet Emma Lazarus was invited to write a poem for a literary auction whose proceeds would go towards building a pedestal for what came to be known as “The Statue of Liberty.” Lazarus’ entry, titled The New Colossus, was eventually (in 1903) inscribed on a bronze tablet inside the Statue of Liberty for all to read. Its message about America, written by a Jew, captures the essence of what it means to be an American Jew:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Recasting the classical Greek Colossus (a representation of the pagan sun god) as “The Mother of Exiles,” Emma Lazarus turned the Statue of Liberty into an American version of a Jewish-Biblical matriarch standing at the door of her home, welcoming all those who yearn for freedom and shelter. No longer interested in the “storied pomp” of ancient empires, this matriarch seeks to house and assist the world’s “tired and poor” who “yearn to breathe free.” Replacing the Greek sun god – the conqueror of the world – Lazarus’ “Mother of Exiles” is now the nurturing and comforting symbol that welcomes newcomers to a new and unique world: the world of American democracy.

It is not by chance that an American Jew of Sephardic background would author a poem invoking the motifs of “exile and homecoming.” Well versed in her people’s long history of exile and persecution, Emma Lazarus fully understood what a privilege it is for Jews to live in the United States, the safe haven where they enjoy the blessings of American democracy. Lazarus expressed this in another powerful poem she wrote titled “1492”:

Thou two-faced year, Mother of Change and Fate,
Didst weep when Spain cast forth with flaming sword,
The children of the prophets of the Lord,
Prince, priest, and people, spurned by zealot hate.
Hounded from sea to sea, from state to state,
The West refused them, and the East abhorred.
No anchorage the known world could afford,
Close-locked was every port, barred every gate.
Then smiling, thou unveil’dst, O two-faced year,
Saying, “Ho, all who weary, enter here!
There falls each ancient barrier that the art
Of race or creed or rank devised, to rear
Grim bulwarked hatred between heart and heart!”

For Emma Lazarus – an American Jew of Sephardic descent — the “two-faced year” of 1492 held a double-edged irony. In 1492, after a long, bloody and brutal inquisition, the Spanish Jews were forcibly expelled from Spain, “when Spain cast forth with flaming sword the children of the prophets of the Lord.” In that same year – 1492 — Christopher Columbus discovered America (and later, in 1654, the first Jews to come to America were Spanish & Portugese Sephardic Jews, Emma Lazarus’s own direct ancestors).  In this poem, Lazarus also evokes the motif of America as a safe place of refuge – “Ho, all who weary, enter here.” This theme resonated deeply with Emma Lazarus, a descendant of a weary and persecuted Jewish people who found a safe haven of freedom and protection in America. So, too, it should resonate with all American Jews, on Thanksgiving, and every day of our blessed lives in this great country.

Over 2500 years ago, facing persecution and oppression, a small band of freedom fighters overcame all the odds against them and defeated an army much more powerful than them. They stood up to injustice and were willing to fight for the freedom and independence of their people. In his moving description of the story of Judah and the Maccabees, Rabbi J.H. Hertz wrote: “There is nothing finer in the whole history of heroism, or more soul-stirring in the annals of religion, than the account of this handful of Jewish warriors who were prepared to live or die nobly, in order that the light of revealed truth and righteousness be not extinguished in a heathen world.”

The torch of the Maccabees continues to shine brightly today. In Israel – a country founded on the same principles of freedom and democracy as those of America – the modern-day Maccabees of the Israel Defense Forces are taught a powerful ethic during their basic training: Only those who know how to defend their freedom are worthy of it.

The modern State of Israel also serves as a safe haven of freedom and democracy. Much, much smaller than the United States, and lacking an impressive “Lady of Liberty” welcoming new immigrants, the State of Israel has certainly done its lion’s share of absorbing “the tired, poor huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” From Holocaust survivors and refugees from Arab lands, to the Prisoners of Zion from the former Soviet Union and the Ethiopian Falash Mura, Israel – the tiny Jewish haven of freedom and democracy in the Middle East – has continued to cry out: “Ho, all who weary, enter here!”

American Jews have often felt conflicted by their so-called “dual identity.” On this Thanksgivukkah – a convergence of an American holiday giving thanks for America, and a Jewish holiday celebrating freedom – I have never felt so proud of being an American Jew.

Rabbi Daniel Bouskila is the Director at the Sephardic Educational Center.

On heroes and gratitude: A real Thansgivukkah message

It has a clever, catchy name.  It will allegedly occur once every 78,000 years.  It has inspired dozens of fusion recipes like sweet potato latkes with cranberry applesauce.  It has even inspired a Hanukkiah or menorah in the shape of a turkey,  a “menurkey.”  It is the perfect blending of two of your favorite holidays….It’s Thanksgivvukah.  Next week  we will  celebrate the fortunate overlapping of these two holidays—lighting the 2nd candle as we ate our fill. 

Let’s not forget that at its core, both holidays give us an opportunity to express our gratitude for the abundance in our lives.  And while there are many important themes connected to Hanukkah, the festival of lights, one that really sticks out, is the idea that that the holiday is about heroes.

Our Beverly Hills community as well as the music community at large lost a true hero last week.  Joel Pressman, a teacher of mine, lost his valiant battle with cancer.  Joel, Mr. Pressman, or Mr. P was a consummate teacher.  He was THAT teacher to literally thousands.  The one you remember, the one who left an indelible mark on your life.  He wasn’t always easy.  He had a big personality and wasn’t afraid to share his opinions or judgments. 

In the last few months before he died, Mr. P became more and more public about his condition- with many video posts on Facebook.  And what became clear was that this teacher’s teacher would continue to teach us all up until his dying day.

“I’m not afraid of death.  That’s the easy part” he said. “It’s dying that is really hard.”

In his dying months, he gave us all a gift.  Rather than retreat into anonymity, he became more and more public.  Even hosting a “Day in the Park with Joel” where literally hundreds lined up to say goodbye and to let him know just how much he meant to them.

That, I believe, was the most profound blessing (if there is a blessing in all of this) of his illness and passing.  He got to know first-hand, just how significant he was to so many people.  He got to hear, feel and truly understand just how loved he was. Most people don’t get that opportunity.  We usually talk about people only after they are gone.

How did he do this?  By sharing his one powerful and simple message.  Love.  Just love.  Nothing else.

He told us all he loved us, and in so doing, encouraged us to tell him how we felt about him.  He even inspired me to pick up the phone and tell several other important mentors in my life just how important they are to me. 

At this time of year, just a few days before Thanksgivukkah, I encourage you to put real meaning behind this conflated holiday.  Seek out an old mentor or teacher –one of your unsung heroes.  Express gratitude for  changing your life.  In so doing, you just might change theirs.

Yonah Kliger is the senior cantor at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills–  @cantoryonah

Chanukah: Filling our lives with an ancient light

When we are children, Chanukah often seems the most important holiday — after all, we get gifts and chocolate coins.  As adults, we learn that Chanukah commemorates a military victory as well as the miracle of the everlasting oil, and that it signifies our commitment to filling the darkest time of the year with light, even as we recognize that the holiday really isn’t very important spiritually.  Still, maybe the wisdom of the child is greater than the practicality of the adult. In fact, Chanukah is a deeply important holiday — not just because of the Maccabees, but because of its biblical importance.

Yes, it’s biblical importance.  The eight-day holiday that begins on the 25th of Kislev is implied in the Bible itself, and its importance is clearly seen throughout our ancient texts.  As important, we can find a practice to invigorate and enlighten our modern lives through the celebration of this “minor” holiday…that really isn’t so minor.

To understand this, we need to take a look at the Jewish calendar and examine the life and death of our patriarch Jacob and his connection to what we celebrate during the Festival of Lights.

We are taught that Jacob is the patriarch most associated with the holiday of Sukkot, and that tradition has it that Jacob died on Erev Sukkot in the year 2255 (1506 BCE).  But, after his death, “Egypt bewailed him for 70 days” (Gen. 50:3).  After this period of mourning in Egypt, Joseph and his family travel for one day and hold an “imposing eulogy,” and then Joseph “ordained a seven day mourning period for his father.” (Gen. 50:7)  Which brings us to the direct relationship between Jacob and our Festival of Lights: Sukkot is on the 15th day of Tishrei, and 70 days later is the 25th of Kislev.  Our ancestors mourned Jacob for a total of eight days (one of traveling and a eulogy and seven for declared mourning), from the 25th of Kislev through the 2nd of Tevet…the exact dates that we now celebrate Chanukah.  They were observing a holiday on the same dates, but preceding the Maccabean revolt by more than 1300 years.

Our Sages of the Talmud recognized the relationship between Sukkot and Chanukah in their dialogues and tie the two holidays together multiple times.  We are taught of not reciting confession between Sukkot and Chanukah (Pesachim 36b); the description of the blessings said on both holidays in the same sentences (Sukkah 46a), and a discussion about the practical uses of the booths and the Chanukah lights are interspersed together (Shabbat 22a).  We even see that our ancient elders put Chanukah in the same category as the biblically commanded three festivals of Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot when discussing what days “the flute is played” (Arachin 10a).  And although Maccabees II is not considered canonical, we find that the text there states that Judah Maccabee himself wanted the Jews of Alexandria to observe a “holiday of booths” (“hag ha’Sukkot” 1:9) in the month of Kislev and ordained the Festival of Chanukah as “eight days in joy as the holiday of Sukkot” (10:6).  For our ancestors, who would be aware of the mourning period that was a commemoration of Jacob’s death, the holidays of Sukkot and Chanukah are clearly linked. 

Jacob, who had built the first “House of God” (“Beth-El”, Gen. 28:17), comes back to Beth El when he and his family are commanded by God to return there and “remove the foreign gods that are within you and purify yourselves” (Gen. 35:2).   Similar to the practices of the Maccabees, he rejected foreign gods and dedicated himself to God.  It is easy to see how our ancestors saw the rededication of the Temple as a recapitulation of Jacob’s journey.

During Sukkot, we dwell in our booths.  We eat, sleep, study, and pray there.  Everything that can be found in a sanctuary is there, with one exception:  I have never seen a Ner Tamid, an eternal light in the Sukkah.  We are blessed to see the lights of the Eternal through the roof, but not in the booth itself.  On Sukkot we build the structure, and on Chanukah we light it up from the inside.  The 70 days in between are a time to prepare for that light.

In the same way that the counting of the Omer prepares us after Passover for the giving of the Torah on Shavuot; these 10 weeks between Sukkot and Chanukah are a time for us to prepare to truly enlighten ourselves.  It is a time of personal meditation to contemplate what we want to light up our lives with.  What are the passions, joys, and goals that we want to ignite?  What do we want to fill our own personal temples, our personal lives with?  These 70 days are an opportunity to focus on the light that we want to shine into the world.  The days in between are a powerful time to manifest what we truly believe in; a time to prepare to fill any emptiness in our lives with light.

Did the miracle of the oil happen on the exact same dates as the mourning period for Jacob?  Maybe.  Did the first Chanukah happen in the winter, and our Sages overlaid its celebration on to the same dates because of the clear parallels to Jacob?  Again, maybe.  Does it matter which is accurate?  Probably not.  What is more important today is that we use this time period to create a sacred structure within our lives:  as safe and joyous as our Sukkah, and as bright and insightful as our Chanukah candles.

Chanukah is a time to fully enliven and enlighten our lives; a time to fill our houses with a light that can never be extinguished.  It is a time to fully bring the wisdom of Jacob into our lives, and to create a sacred Temple in all of our physical spaces.  When we celebrate, and when we remember, we use candles.  May these candles be the reflection of the brightest parts of our souls, and may Chanukah have the deepest of meanings as we shine.

Rabbi Michael Barclay is the spiritual leader of The New Shul of the Conejo, and the author of “Sacred Relationships:  Biblical Wisdom for Deepening Our Lives Together”.  He can be reached directly at

Calendar November 23-29

SAT | NOV 23


It might mean sharing someone’s television or it might mean sharing someone’s HBO GO, but the Jewess of comedy is set to headline her first HBO comedy special, and it’s your job to watch. The program, which will be presented in association with Funny or Die, promises to be fresh, fearless and utterly original. With two Emmy nominations, one Emmy win, film credits that include “Wreck-It Ralph,” “Take This Waltz” and “The School of Rock,” and a New York Times best seller, Silverman now invites herself into your home. Make sure your door’s open. Sat. 10 p.m. HBO West. ” target=”_blank”>

SUN | NOV 24


It’s the magic of camp all in one day — and the whole family is invited. 220 wooded acres in Malibu will play host to a Chanukah celebration that will feel a lot like summer camp. With crafts, nature walks, outdoor cooking, zip lining, a petting zoo, organic gardens, a concert and more, you will be overwhelmed with unique opportunities. Sun. 10 a.m.-2:30 p.m. $10 (ages 7 and up). Shalom Institute, 34342 Mulholland Highway, Malibu. (818) 889-5500. ” target=”_blank”>


National Council of Jewish Women/Los Angeles presents an opening art reception for the internationally renowned Ann Krasner. Born in Moscow, she was a young woman with talents that ranged from ballet to technical cybernetics — lucky for us, she also picked up a paintbrush. With her artwork featured in places like Paris, Switzerland, Sweden, New York and more, Krasner paints in a language that knows no borders. Her work embraces color and challenges convention. There will be a special piano recital by prodigy Benjamin Krasner. Sun. 3-6 p.m. Free. NCJW/LA Council House, 543 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 852-8512. ” target=”_blank”>



He has spent a tour opening for Matisyahu, and his EP is filled with songs that encourage you to breathe easy and stop worrying. With a sound reminiscent of Jack Johnson, Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie and Joni Mitchell, Robin addresses universal themes with a tenderness and poetry you can tap your foot to. He is a musician we can be proud of as Jews, and inspired by as people. Ages 21 and over. Tue.  7 p.m. $10. The Hotel Café, 1623 Cahuenga Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 461-2040. FRI | NOV 29


It’s the holiday hybrid we never knew we wanted — and won’t see again until 79811. Deborah Gitell, Craig ’N Co. and The Pico Union Project are going to make sure you celebrate this Thanksgiving/Chanukah mash-up like it’s Christmas. There will be performances from the Beit T’Shuvah Choir, Kosha Dillz, Keshet Chaim Dance and more; food from Canter’s Truck, The Kosher Palate, Bibi’s Bakery and more; and activities that include moon bounces, carnival games and tree planting. You will be both grateful and Chanukah-y. Fri. 11 a.m.-4 p.m. $5-$20. Pico Union Project, 1153 Valencia St., Los Angeles.