The German synagogue melody Rock of Ages, Let Our Song:
Rock of Ages let our song, praise your saving power
you amidst the raging foes were our sheltering tower
kindling new the holy lamps,
priests unbowed by suffering,
purified the nation’s shrine…
Kindling new the holy lamps — There it is, the central ritual imperative of the Jewish holiday Hanukkah. Light. The light of eight candles in a Menorah.
The November grocery circulars invite Jewish people to celebrate the miracle of continuing light by special sales on some of the traditional foods – packaged potato pancakes or latkes, chocolate coins or gelt. And in this time of supply pipeline tie ups and labor shortages, ritual foods might be harder to get. Just in the last few weeks, anxiety over smaller turkeys, fresh cranberries, sweet potatoes and yams in time for Thanksgiving.
Other Jewish holiday foods are often hard to come by — pomegranates for the Jewish New Year, and nearly always lately boxes of matzos — unleavened bread — and horseradish, bitter herbs, for the Passover Seder meal go missing, unless secured weeks in advance. Let alone lamb shanks.
I have taken to hording these items in my pantry from year to year.
But you can make your own flat bread and for Hanukkah, grate your own potatoes and onions.
It is the candles that are critical.
Last year, on our neighborhood Facebook page, a Jewish woman who said that somehow, she and her husband had forgotten to check on the status of their Hanukkah candles and had discovered — in the midst of a pandemic — that they had only two days worth left in the box they had purchased last year — when it was easier just to ride around from store to store to find some.
When it was more — in fact even possible at all — to consider driving 15 or 20 miles to borrow extras from a cousin – maybe have a visit.
By the end of the day, she had called around and found a small supply remaining at the nearby Publix. Holiday/holy day disaster averted.
Because Hanukkah calls for at least 36 candles — eight for each night of this festival of lights — and actually 44 — including the kindling light. To mark an ancient winter festival for the Jewish people, that turned into a minor commemoration of a guerilla war of liberation from oppression and religious degradation, and then and increasingly has burst into a more major and commercialized celebration complete with a miracle and a gambling game with spinning tops or driedels.
I had gone through the same crisis the week before, finding only five forlorn leftover candles from my old box, and managed to order some from Amazon that arrived just in time. Before that, I too had put out the call, and gotten sweet notes from Jewish friends across the country that they wished I lived next door so they could give me some, and a suggestion from a progressive rabbi that, for God’s sake, we are in the middle of a COVID-19 surge, not to beat myself up that I might fall short, that I could use any candle I could find.
After all, I eventually reminded myself, Jews in concentration camps in the middle of the holocaust saved scraps of fat from their food and used loose threads to form makeshift wicks — stuck in a carved raw potato.
Now, I see that its actual or constructed history is troubled — orthodoxy versus hybrid culture. The miracle that is light prevails.
So yes, amidst the Holocaust’s horrors, historians tell us that many Jews found ways to mark Hanukkah, keep that holy lamp blazing.
There was little room for light in Theiresienstadt, where some 140,000 Czech Jews came through the Nazi camp, almost one in four eventually submitting to disease or starvation, those who survived moved on to still more terrible places.
Yet still, in late 1942, someone stole a large block of wood and carved what is described as an ornate hanukkiah — the special menorah or candle holder.
Other Jews in other ghettos and camps found ways to kindle a flame and celebrate the holiday: in Warsaw, behind closed curtains, joyfully lighting the menorahs that would be left behind when they were either killed or transported, and later, after the war and liberation, in Westerbork, a transit camp in the Netherlands, making a menorah out of wood and aluminum foil, with grease and cotton wicks serving as candles. In another, a lamp made out of cartridge scraps and shell casing, dedicated to the American military who had freed them, inscribed: “A great miracle happened here.”
Recent surveys have revealed how many younger people, in particular, have an astonishingly limited knowledge of the Holocaust, the genocide of millions of Jewish and other people. Even fewer of any age place this horrific event in the context of thousands of years of systematic violent persecution against a people. Whose holidays and life celebrations made them vulnerable to brutal attacks. Whose lights, by the necessity of survival, were hidden. But whose rituals were maintained in some fashion.
Years before the Final Solution, the attempted total eradication of the Jews, families like mine and my husband lived in that fear and that courage — his grandmother from Romania bringing a dingy brass menorah with her to this country (and a tea kettle), leaving behind the shtels or small drab Jewish towns whose Jews have nearly vanished — decimated by exodus to America and Israel, by what is called the Holocaust of the Forest, by decades of communist repression, routinely persecuted for practicing their religion. A handful of Jewish people, a few synagogues, not quite completely broken after hundreds of years.
In 1998, Hanukkah was celebrated for the first time in Spain since its Jewish population was decimated by the Inquisition and expulsion more than 500 years ago.
The ritual lighting of a 15-foot menorah on the eighth and final day in the old Jewish quarter of Girona attracted more than 1,000 people, including many non-Jews. A demonstration of only recently established religious tolerance which only in 1992 put Islam, Protestant Christianity, and Judaism on equal footing with the country’s predominant Catholicism and its cruel record of domination and subjugation.
1492 was a terrible year for the native people in the Americas, and for Jewish people on the Iberian Peninsula as well.
In Spain today, there may be 25,000 Jews, compared with more than 200,000 when the Roman Catholic monarchs King Ferninand and Queen Isabella, in what was called the “Edict of Explusion,” ordered all Jews to leave the country within 3 months. This followed years of mobs looting and destroying Jewish synagogues and homes, economic hardship, famine, forced conversion, torture, and burning at the stake. Most Jews left for Portugal, which in turn, expelled all its Jews four years later.
The last Spanish Inquisition death was recorded in 1926, and the office of inquisition officially closed only in l992 when the Olympics came to Barcelona, with offers, now largely rescinded, to offer Spanish citizenship to the descendants of Sephardic Jews forced out centuries ago.
More than 100 outwardly-Christian descendants of Jews who were essentially forcibly converted to Catholicism during the Inquisition celebrated Hanukkah in Palermo, Sicily, in 2013 in what Tablet magazine reporter Rachel Silberstein described as an unlikely venue — the infamous Steri Palace prison where, she wrote, Jews were routinely tortured from 1601-1782.
Centuries after the Steri Palace prison was used to try to extinguish our light, one official said, we came here to show that the flame of Judaism continues to burn.
Candles were lit as these “lost” Jews reconnected through light with wider Jewry.
Before COVID derailed it, we were set earlier this fall to take a Road Scholar course on the secret Jews who found their way to the Americas, to New Mexico in the Southwest territories of what was once called New Spain. Today there are thousands — at least 1500 families — in the high desert communities around Albuquerque and Santa Fe. Writer Trudi Alexy tells us that the strength of their connections to Judaism and their own awareness of it vary greatly from family to family — some of the Jewish customs they continue to observe, she notes, have been so modified over time that they are barely recognizable.
While the official educational program was called off, my husband and I made the trip, and had the privilege of spending an afternoon with Rabbi Min Kantrowitz, one of the instructors and non-denominational religious leader with deep connections to these conversos whose hidden Jewish practices have included not working on the Sabbath, not eating pork or pork products, having two sets of dishes, praying three times a day facing East, and lighting long burning candles in church on Friday.
Whose strategies for staying hidden in small Hispanic towns include appearing extra religious, attending mass regularly, having a priest in the family, keeping pigs as pets.
Nevertheless after 20 generations they continue to persist — even after being chased by the Inquisition into the new land, even after all the years of hiding, of imprisonment and torture, of burnings — looking always over their shoulders — many of them remaining devout Catholics, some of them emerging, approaching local synagogues — and navigating their complicated religious and cultural identities.
Keeping the courage memory intact and the fear memory as well — especially in the face of an overwhelmingly Catholic hierarchy and current persistent anti-Semitism.
Dov Wilker, a regional director of the American Jewish community, recently wrote an opinion column about rising Jew hatred on our streets, our schools, and expressed by elected officials across the political spectrum. It has been demonstrated, he observed, by Holocaust distortions, swastikas scrawled on school walls, and the desecration of graveyards.
This may explain, he proposed, why 90 percent of American Jews believe anti-Semitism is a problem in this country, and why an overwhelming majority of them say it has increased over the past five years, according to the 2021 American Jewish Committee report on anti-Semitism, released three years after the Tree of Life synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh, the single deadliest attack on Jewish people in our history.
Sadly, almost a quarter of the surveyed Jews have avoided publicly wearing, carrying, or displaying items that might help people identify them as Jewish.
Their lights — literally and metaphorically — hidden.
In my town, a town that for thirty years, beginning early in the 20th century, basically barred Jews from living there, next to another town that only permitted white Christians to be residents — there are beginning to be more Jewish people. I was pleasantly surprised that the neighborhood elementary school offered Hanukkah candles in their holiday gift catalogue, and I picked my box up from a Jewish woman who was surprised I was surprised.
Nonetheless, there are Jewish teens in this town who don’t understand why only Christmas lights and wreaths are city sponsored, where are Hanukkah and their holiday rituals honored in what they believed was a diverse town?
When asked on social media whether Jewish families intended to place their Menorahs in their windows, some said emphatically no — it feels too dangerous. This with the fear memory of a family in Billings, Montana, some years back, when Black, native American, and Jewish families became the targets of intimidation. When a brick thrown through the window of a six-year-old Jewish boy who had placed his menorah there, led to 10,000 menorahs placed in windows, standing against hate and bigotry.
The Anti Defamation league urges us, Jews and Non-Jews alike, to keep lights continuing to shine bright long after the eight days of Hanukkah.
They remind us that while the wax may drip and the wick burn away, the opportunity for multi-community collaboration is wide open to build safer and more inclusive communities.
Silence is acceptance.
Response must be quick and clear.
Let people who have been harmed know that they are not alone.
Make your stand against hate broadly visible.
Don’t back down.
cour·age — The state or quality of mind or spirit that enables one to face danger, fear, or vicissitudes with self-possession, confidence, and resolution.
Children of the prophet’s word
whether free or fettered,
wake the echoes of the songs
where you may be scattered.
Yours the message cheering
that the time is nearing
which shall see all people free,
Be a light.