By Dasee Berkowitz
JERUSALEM (JTA) — There is nothing cuter than my five-year old daughter coming home from kindergarten with an overly decorated menorah in hand singing “Ner li Ner li, ner li dakik,” the Israeli version of “This Little Light of Mine.” The song speaks about the little candle, so thin, small and all hers to light.
Personalizing the holiday for kids is just good pedagogy. Through song, play and creative arts, early childhood educators get these little Maccabees to embody the holiday and feel they have the power to create and even embody the light of Chanukah.
And then they grow up.
They learn more details about the Chanukah story. They study the Maccabees and the civil war between the Jews. They analyze the military battles that the Hasmoneans conducted to achieve victory over the Assyrian Greeks. And they also learn about the ultimate corruption and failure of the Hasmonean dynasty itself. As they grow, they move further away from the simple message of Chanukah that they had claimed as children – to bring light to dark places.
The contrast between the narrative about light that children learn in elementary school and the parallel one about the story of the Maccabean revolt that they learn more about as they get older is not just a developmental one — it’s a profound statement about how we view the world. Stories about war that can provide a sense of unity and purpose are ultimately draining, whereas ones about light and miracles are constantly renewing.
Experiencing an ongoing war is grueling. Living in Jerusalem right now, I know that feeling intimately. Waves of terrorism, fear, uncertainty and distrust rise and then (eventually) fall. And citizens, Jews and Arabs alike, are left wondering what the future will hold, without any clarity that the once-touted promise to live with “peace and security” will return. It’s hard to dream big or even to believe in miracles at a time of ongoing war. You live for the day, and then the day after. That is the mentality of war.
A story of light and oil that lasted only for eight days is one of vision and hope. The rabbis of the Talmud picked up on the distinction. They spent so many more pages expounding upon the miracle of the oil, recounting the details of when and how to light the Chanukah menorah and only a few lines about the military victory achieved by the Maccabeans.
Focusing on the light was tactical. The rabbis didn’t want the legacy of Chanukah to be about a victory won by human hands in which God was absent. They wanted to elevate the victory of Chanukah to the heavenly realm. This is a celebration of miracles and God’s hand in history, not the brute force of the determined few, the rabbis would have said.
The rabbinic approach is most telling in the haftarah they selected for the Shabbat of Chanukah, which include the words from Zechariah, “Not by might, and not by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord.”
And now, living where I do, I understand the importance and wisdom of the rabbinic emphasis. Focusing on the miracle of the oil helps us put our faith in something bigger than ourselves. It gives us hope to look beyond the political machinations of the day to what the future could look like. It helps us break free of the never-ending cycle of violence and cynicism and can enable us to look forward to the possibilities that the “light-driven” narrative can offer to our children and beyond.
The rabbis wanted to ensure that a political victory, however needed at the time, wasn’t the end of the story. They wanted to ensure that we didn’t worship our own political might and are guided by a greater power.
The Chanukah of the rabbis relies on the personal and embodied light that my five-year-old sings about. There is a beautiful idea from the Book of Proverbs that we each contain within ourselves a light: “The life breath (the soul) of a human is the lamp of God. With it, God searches all the hidden chambers” (Proverbs 20:27). Our internal light is God’s light within us, searching out every part of us, revealing in the hidden places our abilities to manifest that light outward.
This Chanukah, how can we return to the pure idea of our own personal lights, or “ner li,” as my daughter would croon. Not only the one I hold in my hand to light the Chanukah menorah, but the one that I have within me to shine light into dark, seemingly unmovable or unchangeable places around us.
Dasee Berkowitz is a Jewish educational consultant and writer living in Jerusalem. She is a frequent contributor to JTA, the Forward and Kveller.com.
7 ways to celebrate Chanukah (and not one involves gifts!)
By Maayan Jaffe/JNS.org
Despite Chanukah being one of the few Jewish holidays not mentioned in the Torah, it gets a lot of play — pun intended. Shmuel Arnold of Baltimore recalls how, while growing up in a secular Jewish household, the holiday had one meaning: presents. Today, however, married with three children ranging in age from 9 to 18, Arnold — like many other parents — tries to infuse more meaning into the Festival of Lights. Here are seven ways to celebrate the holiday that don’t involve gifts:
Fun and creative activities can help Chanukah come alive at home. Pinterest has a colorful variety of Chanukah crafts that work for children ranging from toddlers through teens. A favorite in my house is the Chanukah handprint. Children dip their palms into a bowl of fabric paint and stamp it on a sweatshirt (it works on paper, too, but a sweatshirt is more practical). Then, they dip each of their fingers into paint to create finger candles. Finally, they take their thumb and stamp it in the middle — the shamash (worker candle). Add a flame to each candle, and you’re done!
It might not seem so original, but Chanukah is a great time for a party. Unlike other Jewish holidays that involve extra time in synagogue, or for Orthodox Jews might preclude playing music or driving, Chanukah is eight days (except for a regularly observed Shabbat) of unabashed fun. Birthday in a Box offers traditional Chanukah party tips, as well as some fun and quirky new spins on Chanukah decorations, food, and favors.
You have a little dreidel — so use it! Pull the neighbors, young and old, together for a dreidel tournament. Break into teams of three and four and get spinning. We use candy as prizes. It’s best to use something wrapped since it will be touched by lots of little hands! You can purchase dreidels in bulk from Judaica.com or often at your local synagogue’s gift shop. It adds to the excitement when you have dreidels of various sizes and colors. If you’re particularly serious about dreidel-playing, I found a website for a “Chai stakes” dreidel tournament that breaks down the “official” rules and regulations for “World Series Dreidel.”
TALK ABOUT THE MIRACLE
As Arnold’s children have gotten older, he uses the 30 minutes required to sit around the Chanukah candles as a way to discuss the miracles of the holiday and some of its more esoteric significance. “When Hashem (God) created the world there were no stars or planets. The or — the light — was a non-physical or. That or, the light of God, is what the Yevanim (Greeks) were trying to knock out of the world,” Arnold explains. “I tell my children that we can use Hashem’s light like a soldier uses night vision goggles…to see His hidden miracles, to appreciate the spiritual light.”
SHOP FOR SOMEONE IN NEED
Rebecca Katz of Overland Park, Kan., remembers that as a child she and her family would work with a local charity to receive the names of local families in need — Jewish and non-Jewish. Then, she and her siblings would be provided those families’ holiday wish lists and go shopping for them (instead of for themselves). Once the gifts were purchased, they would hand-wrap them and deliver them in person. “I remember one year, we got to this family, went upstairs and they had a tree, but it was completely empty underneath,” Katz says. “We put all the gifts there and it was so unexpected. The children were so happy.”
RE-ENACT THE CHANUKAH STORY
Younger children can enjoy a game of dress-up. If you have enough kids or can get classmates involved, a re-enactment of the Chanukah story can add to the spirit of the eight days. Kids enjoy dressing up in togas (just use some old sheets) and wielding plastic swords and shields. To make it easier, use a book, such as The Story of Chanukah by Norma Simon, as a guide. If your own children don’t want to dress up and tell the Chanukah story, Chabad.org has a large collection of Chanukah videos that both educate and entertain.
Chanukah is sweeter and oily-finger-lickin’ good with homemade sufganiyot (deep-fried jelly doughnuts) – and the whole family can get in on the act. Today, there are all sorts of recipes that offer variations on the sufganiyot theme. Log onto the Ledger website, www.jewishledger.com. For a sufganiyot recipe with a twist from renowned pastry chef Paula Shoyer, which is included in her book The Holiday Kosher Baker.