We’re heading into the shortest days of the year — but the darkness has been feeling especially heavy lately. The suffering and ill will in the world press in and make it hard to think about celebrating holidays.
This week we have been in the middle of the eight days of Hanukkah, the final night being this Thursday. It’s a minor holiday in the Jewish liturgical calendar, but it has taken on special significance partly because of its proximity to Christmas (“Instead of one day of presents,” sang Adam Sandler, “we have eight crazy nights”) and partly because it is a festival of lights, symbolizing a rededication of faith that darkness, hardship, and hatred will be overcome.
My parents, who were raised as observant Jews in Poland and Russia, rejected religion as young adults in America, and so Hanukkah and the other holidays were not important features of my childhood. But when I had children of my own, I saw that the rituals and stories provide both comfort and meaning, and so the candles, prayers, latkes, and chocolate coins became an annual event at our house.
The Hanukkah story — like the ancient histories behind all the Jewish holidays — is ripe for reinterpretation. In one version, it’s a tale of a great military victory by a small group of heroic Jewish fighters, the Maccabees, over the much larger army of the Syrian Greek King Antiochus IV, who had outlawed Jewish religious practice and defiled the temple in Jerusalem in the year 168 BCE. In other tellings, the Maccabees were hardline zealots who were intent not just on liberating the temple but on stamping out a movement among other Jews who wanted to make a covenant with the Greeks and integrate some aspects of their culture into Jewish tradition.
At our house, we reinterpreted Hanukkah as a story of hope kept alive by children. According to the Talmud, there was no oil left in the desecrated temple with which to rekindle the eternal light. We told the kids that a little girl found one cup of oil that had not been spilled — enough to last for just one day. But it lasted for a miraculous eight days, enough for more oil to be retrieved so that the light would never go out.
What must it be like to be a young person today and see the darkness closing in all around?
I am lucky to work with a team of talented, curious, dedicated young writers, photographers, and business staff who see what is wrong with the world and want to do something about it. They care about democracy, justice, civil and political rights, fair housing, access to high-quality health care, protecting the environment, and working against the manmade disaster of climate change. They are eager to learn how to question the powerful, pursue the truth, and find that hidden cup of oil.
These young staff members and fellows are the candles in my menorah this year.