Shining bright...even when we feel invisible.
This time of year our world is lit up by millions of tiny twinkle lights that cover storefronts and the homes of our neighbors. Growing up, my brother thought that all of the houses without lights in December must have Jewish families in them, because his toddler mind still saw the world in bianairies. While the story is cute, it highlights a pretty big obstacle that many of us face as Jewish families in small towns, and even in big cities in the United States.
I recently read a story of a young boy who felt left out when his class took a trip to see his city decorated for the holidays.
Joshie was only 10 years old, and although his father was a rabbi, he did not attend the private Orthodox school that his siblings went to. Joshie was born with certain challenges, and he needed a school with highly trained specialty staff.
One frosty morning in December, the children from Joshie’s class were led to a bus and dropped off with their teachers in the busy downtown area of the city. The children looked in wonder at the crowds of shoppers passing by, the long lines of honking cars impatiently waiting for pedestrians to finish crossing, and the tall buildings blocking the winter sun. After making sure that every child was accounted for, the teachers led their group down the street. Their goal was to show the children the holiday season’s displays and the intricately decorated shop windows.
As most of the children oohed and aahed, Joshie remained silent. He stood on the periphery, somehow knowing instinctively that he would not find anything familiar in those tinsel-framed windows.
The little group continued on their way, most of the children chattering excitedly. A teacher noticed that Joshie was uncharacteristically quiet and fell in step with him.
“Joshie, don’t you like seeing the holiday decorations?”
“Holiday?” He repeated, looking confused. After a moment, he shook his head. “No, not looking like my holiday.”
The teacher had no answer to give and walked silently alongside Joshie, his heart going out to this little boy.
The group turned a corner and found themselves at the edge of a large plaza. All eyes were drawn to the enormous fir tree decorated with hundreds of yards of shiny tinsel—all eyes, that is, except one pair. Little Joshie was looking a bit further to the right, at the giant menorah. A smile lit up his face as he pointed to the familiar object and cried out: “THAT’S MINE!”
When Joshie’s father heard what happened on the excursion, he found a deep message in his son’s words. He said: “Today, there are many Jews who don’t know much about their heritage, but when they see a menorah, something within lights up with Jewish pride, and they feel it, knowing, ‘That’s Mine.’ ”
Our public spaces are dominated by signs of Christmas. While the lights are beautiful to look at, and the songs are fun to sing, sometimes they can remind us of our otherness. Even though we can’t always change the world around us to reflect Jewish holidays and culture, we can find ways to spread light out into the world. In our homes we light our hanukkah candles and put them in a place that can be seen by neighbors and passers by, just like the sages of the talmudic period instructed.
The Sages taught:
It is a mitzvah to place the Hanukkah lamp at the entrance to one’s house on the outside, so that all can see it. If one lives upstairs, they place it at the window adjacent to the public domain. And in a time of danger, when the gentiles issued decrees to prohibit kindling lights, they place it on the table and that is sufficient to fulfill their obligation.
In the United States it is most common to see a hanukiah (or Hanukkah Menorah) in someone's window rather than on their front patio. However, in Israel during Hanukkah, just as the sun goes down, people pour out of their homes and light their hanukiyot that line the sidewalks with flickering candles and slow burning wicks from oil lamps.
This Talmudic teaching also reminds us that many times in Jewish history, our ancestors were forced to hide their Judaism, unable to share the light of Hanukkah with the world. The word Hanukkah actually translates to dedication, and the holiday got its name when the Maccabees reclaimed the Temple in Jerusalem. Their re-dedication of the temple was also a re-dedication to their Judaism. As modern Jews in America, we are blessed to be able to celebrate our traditions freely by lighting our hanukiyot in view of public spaces.
Of course, decorations and hanukiyot are not the only symbols of Hanukkah in America. Because Hanukkah falls so close to Christmas most years, we have developed the tradition of exchanging gifts during this holiday.
Dianne C. Ashton, Director of American Studies at Rowan University, explains that the trend of exchanging Hanukkah gifts really took off in the 1950s. At this time, Jewish child psychologists as well as rabbis started promoting gifts as a way to make post-Holocaust Jewish kids happy to be Jewish, rather than sad about missing out on Christmas.
Rabbi Sandy Rubenstein, director of Jewish Chaplaincy Services at the Jewish Social Service Agency in Rockville, Maryland, offers some advice for families that want to give gifts, but also want to avoid excessive materialism. She suggests that families can light candles to honor justice or peace, or talk about what brings light into one’s life, or what places in this world need more light. Even with gift giving, family holiday celebrations can still aim to foster social consciousness.
For some people in our communities, the holidays are more about survival than they are about celebration. In a time where many parents and children are discussing the gifts they will buy and those they want to receive, other families wonder how they will find enough money to pay the rent, keep the heat on, and put food on the table; and if they are lucky provide their children with gifts so they do not feel left out of societal norms.
While we might feel invisible in some public spaces, I pray that this holiday season we remember that we are not alone. I challenge those of us who have the ability to give back during this season to do so. This Hanukkah I hope that each of us re-dedicates ourselves to our Jewish values, which remind us to serve those in our communities who are most vulnerable.
May the light of Hanukkah shine bright in each of us.