Chanukah Past & Present - Universal Message

Copyright Rabbi Eli Hecht
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This month children from all religions are extremely busy. They are looking over the latest toys and gadgets found in circulars from Best and Service Merchandise. The kids have been collecting advertised prices for the toy that will soon be theirs. Their job is to leave hints for toys that their parents and friends will buy.

Jewish children anxiously wait for Friday, December 3rd, the night Hanukah begins. Their faces are bright and happy at the thought of receiving gifts.  As soon as the lights are lit, the presents will miraculously appear.

On Hanukah Jews celebrate the miracle of their nation's successful revolution against the Greek occupation and religious persecution. This took place in Israel 165 BCE. The story of Hanukah tells of a handful of Jewish freedom fighters, called Maccabees, waging a successful war for freedom. When the temple was reclaimed and services were re-instituted the main Menorah, a seven-stick candelabrum was kindled. Miraculously, the flames burnt for eight days without being replenished with oil; hence the festival became known as the Festival of Lights.

The distribution of gifts between children and friends is a symbol of friendships and thanks to G‑d for the miraculous time.

However, Hanukah may not always be celebrated that way. Just see what transpired some short 56 years ago. The following tragic scene occurred.

  Here are excerpts from the book, The Chronicle of the Lodz Ghetto 1941-1944, page 421, titled, "Sketches of Ghetto Life: Hanukah in the Ghetto, 1943."

 As any unbiased Jew will acknowledge, the symbols of the festivals remain intact, embedded in tradition, and neither hunger nor cold can claim them. In the ghetto, Hanukah is a family holiday, as it used to be throughout Eastern Europe before the war. It does not have to be performed on an official stage. A Jew who really wishes to commemorate the Maccabees in traditional fashion stages the festival at home.

  In the street, a creature wrapped in rags huddles on dirty steps by a broken door. You can just about make out a face through the rags. The creature is hawking candles (in Yiddish), "Lekht! Lekht!" Normally these are the Shabbos candles that are peddled every week on Sabbath eve. This time they are intended for something else, something more rare: candles for the menorah&

A great number of families lit candles. Along with the sforim (religious books), makhzorim (prayer books for holidays), siddurim (daily prayer books), taleysim (prayer shawls) and tefilin (phylacteries), the man of the house has brought the menorah from the city - rescued it, smuggled it - into the ghetto. One sees simple menorahs of brass or cast iron, but also copper and nickel menorahs, old ones, new ones, factory-made or hand-crafted, free-standing menorahs, or those that are hung on walls. People invite friends and acquaintances. The guests clamber up dark staircases, through dank courtyards and hallways, into an apartment - usually just one room that doubles as living quarters and "best room" for special occasions.

People assemble "in private," without official ritual, with only a lit menorah. Children, too, celebrate Hanukah. There are gatherings in larger apartments. Everyone brings a small, appropriate gift: a toy, a piece of babe (cake), a hair ribbon, a couple of brightly colored empty cigarette packages, a plate with a flower pattern, a warm cap&

After the candles are lit, the presents are handed out. Ghetto presents are not valuable, but they are received with deep gratitude. Finally, songs are sung in Yiddish, Hebrew and Polish, as long as they are suitable for enhancing the holiday mood. A few hours of merrymaking, a few hours of forgetting, a few hours of reverie&

Let the Hanukah celebration of 1943 be the last Hanukah of the war, the last Hanukah in the ghetto. This is everyone's hope. This is what people wish each other when they part - without a word, mutely, with only a handshake.

The menorah candles burn down. It grows dark again. People step out into the street. Ghetto life resumes.

Dr. Oskar Singer wrote this before he was killed in the ghetto liquidation. Yes, it was wishful thinking for Dr. Singer and the entire Jewish ghetto. When it ended over 200,000 men, women and children were worked or starved to death.

The scholar, Dr. Dobroszycki, ghetto survivor, of the Lodz Ghetto, has insisted that the ghetto's stories are essentially life-affirming. "We were pressed to the limit of human endurance, and beyond," he said, "and the society did not break down."

The recent California shooting at the day care center is a scary thing.  It has me worried.  I run a large day care center and school.  I wonder, is it growing dark again in the streets?  As Jews, are we to worry about hate crimes and shootings?  With the ominous reports of a new and hideous neo-Nazi population growing worldwide one wonders.   I think we should be concerned. 

Always vigilant is my motto but never frightened. 

I know that as long as we keep on kindling the Hanukah lights, there is hope that mankind will learn from the past terrible mistakes. Oppression and persecution do not last.  Ethnic cleansing must not be tolerated.  Hate crimes must be stopped.

On the evening of the festival of lights, when I give my children their Hanukah presents and tell them the story of Hanukah, how a determined small group showed hope and courage inspite of the persecution.  They overcame all odds and were miraculously saved. 

Here in America Jews should feel safe and thankful for our wonderful freedom.  To me the main message of the festival of lights is a lesson in religious freedom for all people.

Happy Hanukah, America.