With them they carried candlesticks..kiddush cups…prayer books and shawls. They brought covers for their Friday night bread..and cloths to cover their tables. They took their menorahs…and seder plates. They brought with them only what was most precious and valued..and what would remind them of who they are. Time after time – as Jews throughout history were forced to leave their eastern European shtetls..their towns..their cities in which they’d lived and loved and called home – it was to these ritual ‘objects’ that they held on most tight.
They hid them in bales of hay…in feather mattresses..in hidden pockets of coats and jackets. They sewed them into the heels of worn boots and shoes. Some – if time allowed – buried these ritualistic treasures in their backyards. Hoping that – someday – they would return to their homes..and that these would be there waiting for them. Not confiscated and destroyed by those who wished for every trace and sign of them and their people to disappear…but kept safe beneath the good earth.
They were the ‘things’ that identified them as a religion..as a culture..as a people. They were ‘things’ that tied them to God…connected them to their past..and would bring them together into their future.
Today is the 5th day of Chanukah…an 8-day festival of light and celebration of a miracle that happened centuries ago. It dates back to Alexander the Great and his successors and their attempt to desecrate their temple and massacre the Jews. The story – as I know it – is about Judah Maccabee who led the Hasmonim in a revolt that saved the temple and its people from destruction. The miracle is in the single drop of oil that – by all measures – shouldn’t have lasted for more than one day…but kept the candles burning brightly for an entire eight. Eight days of fighting for the right to survive. Eight days from revolution to resolution and victory.
It’s not a particularly religious holiday..nor one that carries any real great significance and weight. It is a joyous holiday….filled with spinning dreidles and latkes and applesauce. The words inscribed on the dreidles remind us that a great miracle did – indeed – happen there. The potatoes fried in oil.. remind us that it was that one drop that kept the flames afire. It is one in which we honor the light. On each of the eight nights – we add one more candle until the entire menorah is filled and burning bright.
Like all rituals and traditions..it is one that is passed on from one generation to the next.
The menorah I light..comes from my mother..who was given it by hers..and hers given by hers before that. I imagine it was packed in haste during one of the pogroms in Eastern Europe. That a great..great..great grandmother – thought to hide it in a straw mattress they loaded onto their wooden cart. A cart that was one of many …a part of a forced mass exodus from their little shtetl. I imagine that – once settled and safe in a more western European country – she one day gave it to her daughter…who passed it along and thru the generations from one to the next. I like to think that it traveled on an old steamer ship – secretly and securely hidden – as it crossed the Atlantic and landed on these shores. I like to imagine the lives it’s led..the lives it’s seen…the family that it has loved and those who have loved it back.
Eight little candle holders..and a crooked six-pointed star (magen david) marking center. Its imperfection is a perfect testament to its journeys. Both from where it came..and where it will go. It’s a reminder of what it is they carried..and why. And – that someday I will pass this menorah on to children of mine. One more miracle..in a long long line.