My own memories of Hanukkah are of the wonderful smells wafting from the kitchen carrying with it the excitement of fun, friends and family. I also remember my mother faithfully lighting the small, colourful candles on the menorah (candelabra) until all eight were brightly flickering on the last night, casting a glow of light and warmth throughout the house. Hanukkah means potato latkes (pancakes), dreidles (spinning tops) and Hanukkah gelt (money) for the children, both the real and chocolate kind. It also means warm, festive family gatherings.
But this is Hanukkah from a child's perspective. Now that I am grown (or so I'm told), I recognize it as much more than latkes, dreidles and gelt. Rather, these are the symbols that remind us of a fight for freedom and justice that was fought centuries ago. One cannot help but see the parallels of those ancient struggles as they are repeated today in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. The form has changed, however, as extremists with terrorist tactics are bent on destroying what took centuries of growth towards achieving those principles, even using innocent children to carry out their murderous deeds.
The story of Hanukkah commemorates this struggle for freedom. But it is also a celebration. It is symbolized in the story of the miracle of the cruse oil. The story is told that in the 4th century BC, King Antiochus declared an edict to force all Jewish people to give up their traditional rituals and religious practices and worship according to his rule. He desecrated the temple in Jerusalem towards this end. The people saw this as a threat to their religious principles and liberties, and rebelled.
They fought and eventually reclaimed their temple that had been destroyed. Here they found one cruse of oil with which to rededicate the temple, but there was only enough oil to last for one day. Then a miracle happened! This small cruse of oil that should only have lasted for one day miraculously continued to burn for eight days! Why was eight so significant? In those times, eight days were needed to extract pure oil from the olives. It meant the light in the temple did not go out until they were able to replenish the oil to keep the light burning. That is why Hanukkah is also known as the Festival of Lights.
Hanukkah rejoices in this miracle. The celebration helps to bind us within our families and within the families of man over centuries. Why have people bothered to keep it alive for so many years? It serves to remind us of the importance of preserving the universal principles of freedom and justice. Tom Atlee, who penned the oft-repeated Serenity Prayer used in the 12-step program wrote that "democracy is the maturation process of a culture." He recognized that it is difficult to deal with diverse opinions. Dictatorship is easier. But developing democratic skills, attitudes and ideologies within diversity is empowerment and provides a healthy wisdom for a society.
We will continue to eat latkes, spin dreidles and give Hanukkah gelt because it is a joyous time, but it is also a time to renew our commitment and dedication to these moral and ethical values. We hope and pray for another miracle, but in the meantime -- "don't let the light go out."
Libby Simon is a Winnipeg writer.