Category Archives: Holidays

Being a Jew At Christmas Time

[I wrote this article in 1992, fully 28 years ago, but just came across it again, and decided to reproduce it here, just as it was written. I offer it as a not-too-heavy, not-too-long, and really-rather-enjoyable, piece of reading for this season – one of the better things that I have done. I do have a few afterthoughts that I have appended at the end, although, overall, I was amazed at how little things have changed.] 

Thank my fourth-grade teacher, Miss Schneider, for my introduction to Christmas. As public-school teachers go, she was, I gather, something of a religious fanatic. Among other things, she held gospel-study classes in students’ homes every Wednesday after school (this was Canada in the 1950s, when it was genuinely a Christian country). I will never forget the day I sat on my front porch watching some 20 or so of my classmates following Miss Schneider into the home of my neighbor and best friend, just two doors down from me. Joining the class was the thing to do and I couldn’t do it; I was Jewish. To be sure, with what can only be described as conversionary zeal, Miss Schneider tried regularly to remedy my religious status, a project that prompted my parents to remove me from her classroom by February. But in December, I was still a Schneider ward. And that is where I encountered Christmas.

            I was later to find out, however, that when it came to Christmas, all my teachers were more or less Miss-Schneider clones. Every year, as Autumn slipped steadily into winter, even the most humanly sensitive and open-minded teachers became carried away by the spirit of what we now call, euphemistically, “the Holiday Season.” By early November, the classroom had already been turned into a swiftly accelerating vehicle for welcoming Christmas. By late November, we had heard the Christmas story several times over. Red and green decorations floated lazily down from ceilings and doorways. A large decorated tree outfitted the main hall, and a smaller one greeted visitors entering the principal’s office. In art class, you painted Christmas scenes; in English class, you composed Christmas stories; in music, you sang Christmas carols. A huge schoolwide Christmas assembly, followed by a gala Christmas party, marked the end of the first semester, but everybody returned at night when the school’s crack choir presented its annual Christmas concert.

            As welcome as I was in my country, there were certain times when I suspected that as a Jew, I didn’t quite fully belong. Heading up the list of such times was the annual Christmas fever that swept through almost everyone else, but passed me by. None of the Jews in my town kept any Christmas customs in those days. The close-knit Jewish community, tiny enough to know everybody else’s business, would have looked askance at such a thing. A Christmas tree, for instance, would have been viewed as one step short of apostasy. In larger communities though, a small minority of Jews did decorate their own trees, hang stockings and give gifts. It seemed the Canadian, if not the Jewish, thing to do.

            It was, and still is, no picnic explaining to your children that we Jews don’t keep Christmas. They stare at you in disbelief. Everyone keeps Christmas, they plead. It is the topic of every television program, the display in every store window. Here in New York, The Radio City Music Hall features its annual Christmas spectacle and the Metropolitan Museum of Art displays Christmas artifacts. What do you mean, “We don’t celebrate Christmas”? Does that make us the Grinch? Maybe Scrooge?     

            Once, when my children were young, a well-meaning babysitter, looking to be creative, helped each child assemble a tiny Christmas tree, made of colored paper, cellophane, and fallen branches collected from the wintry outdoors. The children beamed at us with glee when we came home. What does a Rabbi’s family do with their children’s ready-made, personally constructed Christmas trees? Certainly not call them Hanukkah bushes and compound the sin of syncretism, doing injustice is both Judaism and Christianity at the same time. Patiently, quietly, and with all the love we could muster, we explained to our children that as much as we adored the work of their hands, the trees had to go. We were Jews; Christmas trees were for Christians; it would be wrong for us to have them – – wrong because it was false to Judaism, and wrong because it made light of Christmas. Hanukkah was important for Jews; Christmas was sacred for Christians. 

            Another year, Nick, our neighbor across the way, came to the door to announce his plans to show up in everybody’s living room on Christmas eve dressed in a Santa Claus suit. Did we want to be included in his list of stops? The kids would love it, he assured us. We thanked him, but reminded him we were Jews. He knew that, but explained how lots of Jews would be on his list. What does a religious commitment of Judaism have to do with keeping or not keeping Christmas? For that matter, what does Christmas have to do with Christianity? For Nick, as for his Jewish takers, Christmas is just a fun time with music, parties, and wishes for world peace. Go argue with that. Scrooge indeed!    

            For Jews like me who take Judaism seriously, however, that is not what Christmas is. It is a feast on the Christian calendar celebrating the incarnation of the son of God. I take seriously the religious significance Christmas has (or should have) for Christians. Since I’m not a Christian, it is self-evident to me that I cannot observe the occasion in my home– not in good conscience, anyway –even though life would be a lot simpler if I could.

            Historians tell us that Christmas was not always the cultural fulcrum that balances Christian life. There was a time when Christians knew that the Paschal mystery of death and resurrection was the center of Christian faith. It was Easter that really mattered, not Christmas. Only in the consumer-conscious nineteenth and twentieth centuries did Christmas fully become the centerpiece of popular piety. Madison Avenue marketed the change and then colluded with the entertainment industry to boost Christmas to its current calendrical prominence.

            My Jewish festival of Hanukkah, which falls about the same time as Christmas, is now being hyped as a sort of Jewish equivalent – – as in “Hanukkah bushes.” It doesn’t matter when Hanukkah falls. Since it is pegged to the Hebrew calendar, it may occur anytime from late November to late December. Regardless of which it is, people wish me a happy holiday around December 25, as if all real holidays ought to happen then.

            I have kindled Hanukkah candles happily and beautifully all my life. Some of my fondest family memories consist of standing with my arms around my children as we sang Hanukkah songs in the flickering candlelight. But the religious part of me regrets the fact that fewer and fewer Jews observe the High Holy Days, Shabbat, and even Passover (which used to weigh in as everyone’s favorite), while more and more identify Judaism as a gift-giving cult centered on Hanukkah. In any event, the Hanukkah hype won’t work. It may sell merchandise, and even inspire Peter Paul and Mary to write “Light One Candle” – – a terrific song by the way – – but it won’t make Hanukkah into a Jewish version of Christmas, and it won’t address the alienation of so many Jews who genuinely like the Christmas they see and feel all around them, the Christmas that they cannot fully share.

            Where I live now, Christmas starts officially at the end of November, with Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. Cities outside of New York schedule their own parades then, but Macy’s version typifies the genre. It takes no semiotic genius to get the message. The parade route winds down Broadway following its own yellow brick road to the shopping Mecca on Herald Square. Bringing up the rear, but leading the way for the folk who follow the official parade route, is Santa Claus, who will soon reappear daily at malls around the country promising goodies to good little children.

            I am no Scrooge. I like Santa Claus too. I like the Christmas music – – even the bad music – – that surrounds the Santa ritual; I like the crisp winter weather, and the bell ringers, and all the rest of the paraphernalia that make most people look forward to December 25. I like my neighbors’ wreaths and the mistletoe, and above all, the genuinely religious Christmas carols that you can hardly hear anymore because they have been replaced by soppy songs that melt down the Christian message of this holy day as quickly as snow in a heat wave. Great music is great music, after all. I enjoy it.

            It is, in fact, my liking (or not liking) of Christmas that constitutes the key to the role of Christmas in American culture. By contrast, I neither like nor dislike Easter, just as I have no opinion of, say, Ramadan. As a Jew I naturally evaluate my own holidays, but I feel no compulsion to appraise the sacred calendars of others. Christmas is an exception to this rule. American mores expect me, even as a non-Christian, to welcome Christmas as a positive good in my life. Not to appreciate the Christmas spirit is considered a cultural sin. Why is that?

            I have in mind three manifestations of Christmas in popular culture. The first two are modern-day fairy tales depicting the ultimate triumph of good over evil: the Broadway hit, Annie, and what was billed (when it came out) as “the summer movie of all time,” Batman Returns. To say that both have been box-office bonanzas is to be guilty of understatement. They obviously touch something very deep in our collective cultural psyche.

            In both, Christmas appears as a symbol of the myth of American virtue. The Batman theme is simple and direct: the forces of good arrayed against the forces of evil. Unlike real life, however, from beginning to end, and no matter how bad things appear in the middle, not a soul in the movie theater has any doubt about who the final victor will be. It is only a matter of time until Batman wins and Penguin loses. And at the end, the protagonist lives happily ever after. That is the nature of fairy tales. They portray things as we wish they were, not as they are. They may be absolutely ghoulish in the hideous trials to which the heroes are exposed, but in the end, Cinderella marries the Prince, Little Red Riding Hood escapes the wolf, Hansel and Gretel don’t get baked in the oven, and Batman restores order to Gotham city.

            What makes Batman interesting, for our purposes, is the fact that the hero is portrayed against the backdrop of Christmas. The entire movie is set in the Christmas season. In his last line of the film, Batman links his own success at foiling the Penguin with the underlying theme of Christmas. “Merry Christmas,” he says, “and goodwill toward men – – and women.” Christmas thus functions as a cultural trope for the way we wish things were, or, better yet, the way we like to pretend things already are. In the actual world, bad things really do happen to good people; real life Penguins do prowl our land. The goodwill quotient measured in the absence of ethnic, racial, and religious rivalries is rather low right now. But the myth of Christmas allows us to put aside untidy evidence from newspaper headlines and to believe instead that all is right in Gotham. Christmas stands symbolically for a secular version of redemption: Jesus doesn’t save, Batman does. If evil has been eradicated, it must be Christmas, goes the logic, as in fact it is in Batman Returns.

            The evidence from Annie is even more transparent. Annie is an orphan who is adopted by Daddy Warbucks. Along the way, evil raises its ugly head in the shape of the manager of the orphanage and her brother, who, in effect, kidnap Annie by posing as her parents. But in the end, their scheme fails, and Annie returns to her wealthy benefactor. As in BatmanAnnie too has been written so that it culminates in Christmas. In the very last scene, not only Annie, but all the other orphans too celebrate a lavish party in Daddy Warbucks’s mansion. If Batman is the message of good conquering evil in general, Annie is the application of that message to American values in particular. Daddy Warbucks is a self-made man, a shining example of what hard work and business enterprise will get you. Never mind the fact that he made his money as a war profiteer – – the play passes silently over the significance of his name, “Warbucks.” The point is that Daddy made it on his own. He hobnobs with FDR and the White House crowd, gets J. Edgar Hoover to unleash the FBI in the search for Annie, and lives the life of luxury that is the stuff of the American dream. But the message of Annie is precisely that those dreams can come true, if only we are hard-working and virtuous. Annie, after all, escapes the orphanage.

            Again, we are dealing with pure myth. In real life, almost no one is self-made anymore. When Anniecame out, it is true, Wall street millionaires abounded and law firms were hiring first-year graduates at astronomical salaries. But most of America was getting poorer, not richer. Homelessness on a scale unknown since the Great Depression was about to become the norm for millions. Nonetheless, Annie told us confidently that even the poorest orphan could become a Warbucks heir. American capitalism triumphed once again. 

            In Annie, Christmas functions artistically not simply as the embodiment of moral victory but as a potent symbol for material success. The last scene focuses on munificent gift-giving. There is absolutely nothing spiritual about the day. No one sings Silent Night, let alone Adeste Fideles; the birth of the Savior is the farthest thought from anyone’s mind. Christmas, pure and simple, is nothing but the myth of endless American wealth born of capitalist entrepreneurship. The myth of secular redemption has reached its pinnacle.

            To Batman and Annie, add the third piece of evidence: Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Dickens wrote his masterpiece precisely at the time that Christmas was becoming the cultural focus of the secular year. England had prospered from the Industrial Revolution, where, once again, the myth of capitalism was wrapped up in the tinsel of Christmas packaging. In reality, the terrors of the time are readily apparent from almost every page of every book that Dickens wrote. But not here. The capitalist myth merges with Christmas, as secular redemption allows Tiny Tim and his family to be saved from poverty (not from sin) and celebrate (a secular feast, not a sacred one) with Christmas plenty donated by none other than Scrooge himself. In his pre-repentant days, Scrooge is the very antithesis of the benevolent capitalist ideal. He is a rich man like Daddy Warbucks, but he hordes his wealth and despises the poor. Naturally, he despises Christmas too. But in the end, he is converted. Christmas is the symbol of good will in general, gift-giving in particular, and the triumph of the nineteenth-century pure capitalist ethic as a general good for one and all.

            I now understand my own Christmas dilemma. Christmas has been secularized, capitalized, and mythologized. As most people keep it, and certainly as popular culture presents it, it is the myth of the America we all pretend we inhabit: a place where Penguins are foiled, Annies are adopted, and even the poorest among us celebrate the wealth that comes from good old-fashioned hard-working industry. Not to observe Christmas is to blow the whistle on the myth, to expose such naked realities as a trickle-down economy where nothing trickles down, in a country rife with social ills and economic deprivation.

            The problem is that even in its secularized form, Christmas is not religiously neutral. It is still Christian. So as a Jew, I am in a bind. I am naturally attracted to Christmas as mythic wish fulfillment, marked by smiling Santas, festive parties, and gifts for everyone. At its secular best, it is at least one day in the year when we remember what we still might be: peaceful people infused with goodwill toward all; and a generous country, where everyone has a dinner to sit down to: heady stuff! But my conscience rebels against adopting what is still, for me, a Christian feast with a Christian message. There may be two Christmases here, the age-old religious celebration and the modern secular one. But they are not easily separated. Religious Christians may well be uneasy about the triumph of the secular variety, but at least they don’t have to worry about toggling back-and-forth between the secular and religious landscapes. They can enjoy the American myth that the secular holiday presents and, simultaneously, observe the religious event for which Christmas was formulated in the first place. That is a luxury I cannot afford.

Fortunately, along with most other Jews I know, I’ve come to terms with our Christmas dilemma. By no means do I yearn to celebrate Christmas. As the public pomp and ceremony becomes somewhat overwhelming, I slip into the role of a visitor to a foreign culture. I appreciate, even enjoy, much of the Christmas ambience; I share my Christian neighbors’ happiness, as they share mine when my holidays roll around. The academic part of me wonders how the religious message of Christmas got so overwhelmed by a secular mythology, and the religious part of me feels a little sorry that it happened that way. There are Jews who keep a Passover Seder, but with no idea that the event has any spiritual significance beyond families getting together. There is nothing wrong with family gatherings, but the life of faith is impoverished if the Passover meal is no longer rooted in the religious verities that have animated it through the centuries. I imagine the same must be true of Christmas for Christians. There is nothing wrong with sleighbells, Bing Crosby, and Christmas pudding, but I should hope Christians would want more than just that, and as Christmas comes more and more secularized, I am not sure they get it.

            In the end, the problem of Christmas is not mine, any more than Christmas itself is. The real Christmas challenge belongs to Christians: how to take Christmas out of the secularized public domain and move it back to the religious sphere once again.

Afterward: Looking back from 2020

1.  I am amazed at how the economic problems of 1992 have only worsened with time. Back then, “millionaires abounded on Wall Street” while “homelessness on a scale unknown since the Great Depression was about to become the norm.” Now, “millionaires” are “billionaires”; homelessness in 1992 was nothing compared to 2020. In 1992, I described “the goodwill quotient measured in the absence of ethnic, racial, and religious rivalries“ as “rather low.” That “goodwill quotient” is a thousand times worse today. I regret, especially, that I failed to specify racism, in particular, as an evil that devastates America. 

2. I fear the original wrongly paints me as an opponent of capitalism. I actually applaud capitalism, as an economic system. The problem lies with the selfish ethic that can accompany it, buttressed by a sort of “Ayn Rand” philosophy that says we all get what we deserve, so that those with privilege need take no responsibility for those without it. 

3.  I did not adequately express my actual ambivalence with the “cultural” Christmas round about me. On the one hand, I deplore the false promise of the secular myth where everything works out and everyone is saved by the likes of Daddy Warbucks, Batman, and a repentant Scrooge. On the other hand, I enjoy very much even the secularized spirit of hope that maybe, just maybe, things can get better. 

4.  Over time, I have come more and more to enjoy being a visitor in homes where Christmas is celebrated, and not just religiously. I remain convinced of the tragic loss entailed by religious holidays so fully secularized that they lose their religious depth. But I made too light of the secularized version which itself is not necessarily without spiritual value. 

I’m Haunted: We All Should Be

It’s a week since Passover ended. But I remain haunted. Haunted by its message, especially in the light of Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day that is coming to its end even as I write this.When it began, I asked, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” Looking back, I ask, “What question should we be asking now?

The answer begins with a Holocaust memory: Elie Wiesel’s account of Jews in a concentration camp unable to celebrate Simchat Torah for lack of a Torah scroll with which to dance. One man solves the problem by picking up a child and holding him as he would a scroll. “This will be our Torah!” he announces.

We are not told what happened to that child, but we can guess, and I thought of him while reviewing Dayyenu, that celebration of God’s many mighty acts, each one being Dayyenu(“Enough!”); but it wasn’t enough, not for the concentration-camp children like the one in the story. “Let my people go,” Moses demanded of Pharaoh; and he didn’t. Neither did Hitler.

Originally, Hitler did propose letting Jews go; the problem was, no one would take them. The Final Solution was really the Second Solution – undertaken when the first one, exporting Europe’s Jews, failed. Even after August 1, 1942, when our government learned with certainty that Jewish genocide was in the works, we refused to help. When Sweden offered to admit 20,000 Jewish children if America would feed them, we turned them down.

We were not the only ones. In 1945, a Canadian official was asked how many Jews could be admitted after the war ended. His infamous reply is legendary: “None is too many.”

These facts are representative of a thousand others, well known by now. Jews would become a public charge, people said; the economy couldn’t sustain them. Many of them were criminals. They would make us “vulnerable to enemies,” the State Department argued.

We Jews can properly disagree on many things, but the moral obligation to open our borders to oppressed seekers of asylum is not one of them. When we say, “Never again,” we cannot just mean “Never, just for ourselves”! Yet here we are, closing borders and saying of others what was said of us: they will be a public charge; they are criminals; we’ll be vulnerable to terrorists.

The failed states that created these refugees are not Nazi Germany: I know that. They are not cases of state-sponsored genocide: I know that too. And not all the refugees are alike: some are more threatened than others. But the horrors they do face — starvation, murder, rape, and more — can kill you just the same.

The helpless children among them remind me of another Wiesel account:  of an Auschwitz child publicly hanged but too weightless for the noose to kill him right away. Instead, he dangles in the wind, as if awaiting salvation after all. Refugee children too are “dangling in the wind” while we decide their fate. Is America still “that great strong land of love” (in Langston Hughes’ words) or not?

The Seder question, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” becomes newly macabre when we recall that Wiesel named his Auschwitz testimony “Night.” For would-be immigrants, cruelly and needlessly sent back home to disaster, “this night” is not at all different from all other nights. When mounting darkness occludes all hope, when it chokes off every possibility of deliverance, night is just night.

We Jews (more than most) have known night. We know (better than most) that we should be debating the best possible way to do the right thing. We should not be doing whatever we can to do nothing.

So what question is in order now, one week after Passover and in the flickering twilight of Yom Hashoah? It is this: How can we not remember that as much as Pharaoh wouldn’t let us out, Amalek wouldn’t let us through; and when the Nazis would let us leave, America wouldn’t let us in? Jews, especially, have the obligation to ensure that history does not record our America as another Amalek.

Jews and Christians as the Theological Double Helix in Time

The period of Passover to Shavuot (for Jews) and Easter to Pentecost (for Christians) exemplifies the similarities that mark our two faiths, despite the obvious differences. It ought also to evoke some daring theology that we might share together. Recounting our intertwined history is commonplace; making theological sense of it is not.

Suppose, however, that our shared history does have theological meaning; and suppose as well that we took it seriously together. How might we transform mutual animosities of the past into faithful commitment to the future?

Take these days of counting in which we now find ourselves: the sefirah, as Jews call it. Jews are now “counting” the fifty days from Passover to Shavuot, the festival that marks the giving of Torah. It was on Shavuot as well – Pentecost, as Greek-speaking Jews called it – that the Christian Book of Acts identifies as the time when the disciples were visited by the Holy Spirit.

If you want revelation, expect it 50 days after Passover. Both Jews and Christians knew that.

There were differences, of course. For the Christian Fathers, these were days of supreme joy, an expectation of the second coming. For the Rabbis, they were eventually made over into a period of mourning. But in their own distinctive ways, both faiths saw these fifty days as anticipating the purpose for which they had come into being. The Jewish Exodus from Egypt was mere prologue to Sinai; the Easter miracle culminated in Pentecost’s gift of the spirit.

There are two ways to narrate the tale of this commonality of vision. The most common version sees Christianity as branching off from rabbinic Judaism. In that scenario, the author of Acts deliberately borrowed the Jewish understanding of Shavuot as backdrop for his account of the Holy Spirit. An alternative understanding, however, would see Judaism and Christianity as two parallel and alternative interpretations of Hebrew Scripture, with neither one preceding the other. Both Jews and Christians would trace their roots to the first- and second-century search for meaning in a common biblical heritage.

In the past, we have each found it convenient to emphasize the first and mistaken scenario – – the idea that Christianity broke away from rabbinic Judaism. Christians could then fault Jews for falling short of Judaism’s intended fulfillment in Christ. Jews could see Christians as going shamefully astray by misunderstanding what the Hebrew Bible is all about.

History, moreover, has not been kind to our relationship. Medieval theologies and the inequities in power have reinforced our sibling rivalries, virtually destroying the possibility of seeing ourselves as sister religions with a common past, now struggling in unison for a shared vision of a better world order.

But the Middle Ages are just part of a much larger story – not just the centuries when we were at each other’s throats, but our birth as twins in the womb of late antiquity, and our nurture through infancy on a single set of sacred tales, to the point of becoming virtual mirrors of each other: Passover is to Easter as Shavuot is to Pentecost, for example.

History is not just the facts but the story line connecting them. Instead of rivals in a zero-sum game, we might equally well devise a story that positions us together as potential allies. We are a double helix of history, constantly swirling round each other through time, never getting close enough to lose our separate identities but never flying off into totally independent orbits either. We are two religious traditions in dialogue from birth, each with our own language, lessons, and liturgy – but also, interdependent parts of a larger entity, poised to work together now in joint pursuit of a better human destiny.

The story we tell of who we are need not be dictated by the worst of what we were. These days of counting in which we both engage can be models of common hope and affirmation. Perhaps the world needs us now, locked not in mutual combat but in collaborative affirmation of divine purpose.

We are indeed the end result of scientific facts, but history is the narrative that links the facts together, and there is more than a single narrative to tell. Among them is the theological tale of being a double helix in time, with differently nuanced versions of a divine message guaranteeing human dignity and promise.

Why High Holiday Serivces Matter More Than You Might Think

“…Jews are baffled by [services] … Especially on the high holidays, they really don’t know what to make of this great big thick book that everyone is going through rather slowly, often for hours at a time.”

“The High Holidays are the unique message of … the human dream.”

“One should rise at the end of the High Holiday service committed to the proposition that … we are historical moments in the making.”

Parashat Nitzavim

“Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” we say, but we are often wrong. It is self-delusion to suppose that if we always make a sound decision, always expend the extra effort, and always do the right thing, we will equally always figure it all out.

Jewish culture especially glorifies the seductive illusion that everything is possible. Sometimes it works — our grandparents lived adjacent to the Lower East Side’s Eldridge Street synagogue, which we now renovate with donations from Scarsdale and Great Neck. But sometimes it doesn’t.

So the important message of Rosh Hashanah is not what we usually think: not the self-congratulatory celebration of Happy New Year, L’chaim! Shehecheyanu, and all that; but the line from Avinu Malkenu — choneinu va’aneinu ki ein banu ma’asim; “Be gracious to us for we have no deeds of our own” — or, at least, some day we won’t have any. Count on it. The day will come (if it has not come already) when our capacity will seem paltry, given lives that grow older and frailer, and the inevitability of meeting challenges along the way that prove insurmountable.

“On Rosh Hashanah,” we say, “it is written who will live and who will die.” As literal theology, I don’t buy that. But as metaphor for the human condition, nothing could be more graphic. Our fate is often written for us; we don’t always get to write it.

This is not to say that we are helpless, but we do need to replace the neurotic notion that we are completely in charge with the recognition that we are often quite dependent — on the weather; on politics and people; on fate, coincidence and circumstance; on any number of things.

This should have been shabbat m’var’khim, the Shabbat immediately preceding the new month, when we pause in our morning prayers to invoke blessing on the month ahead. But the new year is an exception to the rule. Rosh Hashanah is indeed a Rosh Chodesh, a new month, but Jewish tradition dispenses with the normal blessing then because (says the Baal Shem Tov), “In the month that starts the new year, it is God who says the requisite blessing. Only by virtue of that divine act, may we bless the other months that follow.”

The recognition that we are unempowered, on our own, to invoke blessing for the coming year underscores the message that we cannot go endlessly through life bestowing unlimited blessing on everything and everyone. We will get tired, we will sometimes fail, we will need help. Some people learn this the hard way: millions of Americans who are in twelve-step recovery programs, admitting they have to “let go and let God”; and millions more who would do anything to cure a child of leukemia, bring back a teenage runaway, save a marriage, find a job. They do what they can; it is sometimes not enough.

The real heroes of the world are not the people who claw their way to the top as if immune to limitations. Forget Time Magazine’s annual story on the “Person of the Year.” Take the pictures of the rich and the beautiful that fill the New York Times’ style sections and wrap your garbage with them. Life isn’t like that.

The people I nominate for men and women of the year are the ordinary souls who muster the courage to go on, day after day, week after week, knowing they cannot solve life’s worst problems, but committed nonetheless to solving what they can and living with what they cannot. They, and we, will find comfort in a prayer with which Yom Kippur ends: precisely because we are dependent, “God reaches out a hand” to us. We are not alone in our shortcomings; some invisible force sustains us; and throughout the year-long silence following the echoes of Yom Kippur’s final t’kiyah g’dolah shofar-blast, that hand will be there for all who seek it.

There Really Are Miracles: Hanukah, Parashat Miketz

There really are miracles.

Ask children, too young to look cynically at birthday candles, bubble baths and cushiony piles of autumn leaves; ask adults old enough to appreciate the gift of each unfailing sunrise and another day on earth. I’m not talking about the sun standing still or the Red Sea parting, or even the odd case of spontaneous remission from deathly illness that, admittedly, happens to some people (but not to others). The miracles I look for are not breaks in the natural order; they are simpler things, like human decency where we least expect it and the everyday moments that evoke deep breaths of gratitude just for the privilege of being.

Like beauty, miracles are in the eye of the beholder. For people too jaded to see them, Hanukah supplies a crash course in beholding. We do it through light.

Yes, light: an entity so ordinary that we take it for granted, yet a miracle in and of itself. In a universe of relativity, it is the only constant, moving at 186,287.49 miles per second. It is somehow both a wave and a particle; able to permeate not just air, but water and glass as well. We humans see only a fraction of the total light spectrum, but the part we see refracts gorgeously into the colors of the rainbow. Light heats our homes, warms our hearts, and shines our way forward.

Light runs deep in cultural consciousness. Lord Byron gives us “the light of love, the purity of grace.” Oliver Goldsmith likens light to hope, which “like the gleaming taper’s light,/ Adorns and cheers our way.” Milton called it the “offspring of heav’n first-born.”

It resonates equally through Jewish texts, not just as God’s first act of creation but a metaphor for angels, a gift reserved for the righteous from the moment of creation, and a “new light” that will shine on Zion in messianic times.

I love Hanukah, therefore. Forget the presents, the commercial kitsch and even the Maccabean war that started it all. The Rabbis who compiled our Bible omitted the books that describe the war; a single paragraph about it was added to the Amidah, but only as a footnote to the main story: the miracle of light. To the Gemara’s question, “What is Hanukah,” the Rabbis speak only of light – the wonderful cruse of oil that burned longer than anyone had reason to anticipate. Josephus recalls Hanukah in his day as a torchlight parade to light up the darkness.

Why, then, do we keep Hanukah? Not because we won a war: the Maccabees turned out to be as autocratic a dynasty as any other of the petty tyrannies that characterized antiquity. Hanukah is one thing only: a celebration of light – the light of freedom, the light of wisdom, the light of hope, the light of promise, and the light of joy. Our candles are lit at night, not daytime – so people can see them; and on our window sills, so the light invades the darkened streets and alleys l’farsomei nissa (in the words of the Talmud), “to publicize the miracle.”

How desperately we need reminders of miracles! We just had an election for a government that has increasingly stopped working. The stock market is at record highs, but unemployment won’t go away. We cannot afford the wars that we shouldn’t have been fighting in the first place, but have ample cause to worry about the world we are retreating from. At a time when “a thick gloom fell through the sunshine and darken’d me,” Walt Whitman wondered, “must I indeed learn to chant the cold dirges of the baffled and sullen hymns of defeat?” He might have been speaking for us.

Had Whitman walked past Jewish homes at night, he would have found the insistent Jewish answer in the light of Hanukkah candles. Miracles persist; the light shines even when all looks darkest, and keeps on shining long after we are certain it should have been extinguished.

Chanukah, Thanksgiving, and War

As I sat down to write this, it was Thanksgiving in America, and Chanukah was on its way; but the big news was the uneasy truce just announced in Israel. While the rest of New York watched the Thanksgiving Day Parade, therefore, my thoughts turned to this latest round of war and to Chanukah, which commemorates yet another failed attempt to destroy us.

The war that gave us Chanukah was described in I and II Maccabees, whence we get the heroic tales of Judah and his brothers, a priestly family called Hasmoneans. Like all wars, that one too claimed innocent victims in abundance, but eventually, the Hasmonean army prevailed and went on to establish only the second Jewish commonwealth in a thousand years (the first had been the kingdom of David and his descendants).

Not all wars end that well, however, so even though I am not one to overstate the victimhood of Jews – the lachrymose theory of Jewish history, as historian Salo Baron named it — something moved me, as I left for the airport, to take along Yeven M’tsulah, Nathan of Hannover’s chronicle of the 1648 slaughter of Ukrainian Jews by Cossack leader Bogdan Chmielnicki. This was no “Happy Chanukah” tale in the end! We had no Jewish army at all; the Chmielnicki massacres left their mark for centuries as the Shoah of their time.

“I’ve recorded it,” Nathan explains, “so that people can compute the day of their parents’ death and be able to mourn them appropriately.” That’s the best he can offer: proper mourning.

Today’s war in Gaza should be viewed against the backdrop of these two existential bookends: Chmielnicki on one hand and Chanukah on the other. With Chmielnicki, we were helpless; with Chanukah, we were not. Herzl founded Zionism so that we might put Chmielnicki behind us. He even envisioned the Jews of his Jewish State becoming “a new breed of Maccabee.” They would direct just the third Jewish commonwealth of all time.

War is war. All wars randomly maim and erase lives; and all wars are political; there is nothing pure about them. The Hasmoneans were embroiled in internecine civil war as well, one priestly family against another. The Hasmonean chroniclers paint the anti-war party as selfish collaborators and assimilationist idolaters, but they were really just good men and women who saw things differently. The problem is, you never know until after wars are over how they will turn out, so good people are properly divided on whether a war should happen; and if so, with what force, for what duration, and to what end.

This time, in Gaza, war was necessary, it seems, given Hamas intransigence against a Jewish state and the stockpile of fire power raining down on Jewish settlements. Thank God this looks more like Chanukah than Chmielnicki. Most Americans did not give thanks on this Thanksgiving Day for being spared a holocaust. Perhaps at least some Jews did. We have, I hope, put well behind us the day when enemies could slaughter us at will.

I now read Yeven M’tsulah as a historical memory of the way things used to be. I read I and II Maccabees as the way they are again: Jewish power to prevail against forces larger than our own; but also the terrible fact that we are still threatened by those forces, and the stunning reality of what war does in crippling, maiming, burning, and slaughtering, all around.

There is yet another way that we have left the world of Nathan of Hannover behind us. Nathan comforted Chmielnicki’s Jewish victims by assuring them that God somehow desired their martyrdom al kiddush hashem, “for the sanctification of God’s name” — an idea that goes back to the Maccabean era, took root after the wars against Rome, and flourished especially in the Middle Ages when Jews were powerless to protect themselves. With Chanukah too, we chose officially to recall God’s role: the miracle of oil when the war was over, and the conviction that God fought on our side, giving us victory over a power much greater than ourselves. Long before Adam Smith usurped the term to explain the economy, the invisible hand of history was held to be God.

Nowadays, we quite properly believe that God has no hand at all in the wars we fight. We are on our own, having to rally political support, explain our position to the world, build Israel’s military capacity, and then agonize over when and how to use it. Small comfort, that. But it’s better than writing another Yeven M’tsulah with nothing to offer beyond the proper dates for remembering our dead.