May 20, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

The Festival of Lights (and Food, Of Course)

By the time you read this, Chanukah will quite possibly be over, but I’m writing this on the first night, so I’d like to talk a bit about the Festival of Lights and what it means to me. It’s a holiday I wait for all year round. In fact, I even joke around (or annoy, depends on your perspective) with my family by constantly singing “Birkat HaMazon” to the tune of “Maoz Tzur” even in the middle of summer.

When I was younger, Chanukah was almost all about the presents. In fact, my whole calendar was based around when I would be getting presents–one in April for Afikoman, some in October for my birthday, and a big one for Chanukah in December. The rest of the year was just filler material! Okay, I’m definitely exaggerating, but I did truly look forward to receiving a “Mega-Present” that my family had picked out for me (maybe with my input, to be honest). Nowadays the “Mega-Present” has morphed into “Let’s give you money because we no longer have a clue what to get you,” which I have no complaints about.

Blatant and lamentable materialism aside, however, Chanukah always has felt special to me. Just seeing those flames in the menorah flicker next to the window awakened something deeper, something transcendent, in my being. This truly is a special time, when we create light and sing unique songs and play dreidel and eat very oily foods that cause too many acne pimples to break out on my face. Well, that last part isn’t so fun, but I can’t deny that I enjoy the food!

Chanukah is a time for celebration, for enjoyment, in a way that few other holidays are, and I’ve always loved that. We have a family party where we all get together and stuff our faces with food only a few weeks after Thanksgiving. My school (whether Yeshivat Noam or Ramaz) always has great special dancing and trips; this year, Ramaz is going to the Bryant Park rink. (The connection to Chanukah, I think, is that we’ll spin around and fall on the ice…like dreidels!)

There’s a ton that’s special about this holiday. But what about the meaning of Chanukah? What about the story behind the reason for all of the festivity? This year I started thinking more about that.

The story of Chanukah is about the weaker Jewish nation taking on the mighty Syrian-Greeks. We even say so in “Al Hanisim”: “You delivered the mighty into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few.” (Translation from Chabad.org.) No one would’ve thought that our poky little nation–compared to the mightiness of the Greeks and their culture–could’ve overpowered a world superpower. And not only that, but we weren’t even fighting for our land or our autonomy. We didn’t fight because the Greeks wanted to rule over us; we fought because we were being told to get rid of our Jewishness–don’t keep Shabbos, don’t keep kosher, celebrate Greek gods.

But that was then and this is now. It’s an amazing story and worthy of celebration, but is it something that we can identify with today? Or is it just something historical we light candles to remember? Hint: You can see that there’s still a few more paragraphs left of this article, and if it were the latter, I could end it right here. So yeah, I do think the idea of Chanukah is still very relevant today.

It’s not as clear-cut as it was. There’s no single, massive, united enemy going against us. There’s no outright, abject persecution that we have to fight. And, of course, there’s no Beit HaMikdash right now that anyone’s blatantly trying to desecrate.

But, just look at the news and what’s been going on in the world at large lately. Jews walking down the street and praying in shuls are targeted in hate crimes and terrorist attacks. Countries around the world sign documents declaring solidarity with Palestine at Israel’s expense. Israel itself faces Hamas and other enemies bent on its destruction. And many Jews are, it pains me to admit it, losing themselves to assimilation and secular culture. I don’t judge other people’s levels of religious observance, but it does start to bother me when I see people truly not caring and forgetting about Judaism. This is exactly what the Maccabees were fighting against!

In many cases, I feel like we are still the small against the massive, the weak against the strong. The battles we fought against the Greeks are still going on today, only now the foes are assimilation and antisemitism and terrorism instead of Hellenism (which at least, in my opinion, had a much nicer name!). We arguably have a larger challenge ahead of us than the Jews did back in the Chanukah story; they had a tough war to fight, true, but they managed to beat their enemy and relax. Our enemies, so to speak, are much harder to beat simply because they aren’t one concentrated, distinct force but rather a whole host of problems and terrors we need to deal with.

But then we have Chanukah, a reminder that with God’s help we can defeat our enemies. It’s a time for us to celebrate the past and use it to learn for the future. We just need to look towards the lights, to come together as one nation. And maybe to sing “Maoz Tzur” year-round–unless that’s just me.

Happy belated Chanukah!

Oren Oppenheim, age 17, is a junior at Ramaz Upper School in Manhattan and lives in Fair Lawn, New Jersey. He spends his free time writing and reading, and hopes to become a published novelist. You can email him at [email protected] and see his photography at facebook.com/orenphotography.

By Oren Oppenheim

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