Growing up, Chanukah was always my favorite holiday. I mean, isn’t Chanukah every kid’s favorite holiday? There were presents and Chanukah parties nightly, latkes and chocolate coins, sitting around and singing endless songs with my family. While I didn’t necessarily find so much beauty or enjoyment in other aspects of Judaism as I grew up, Chanukah always remained the one holiday I felt a strong connection to.
Until I went to college.
Our little group represented just about every color, creed and religionI don’t remember where or if or how I celebrated Chanukah my freshman year, but what happened my sophomore year is something I will never forget. About a week before Chanukah I discovered that my parents had sent me a gift through a local Jewish organization on campus. I hadn’t known this Jewish group existed at my school, let alone gone to visit their center. With me that day when I went to pick up the package was my roommate Jen, a Japanese-American woman, as well as my best friend Viviana, who was Mexican-American; there was also Harley, who was French, Trichette, from the Caribbean, Melanie who was Indian and a girl from Ireland. Our little group represented just about every color, creed and religion possible.
I was feeling way too cool and hip to actually hang out with my fellow Jewish students, who were too outwardly proud of their own religion for my comfort level. So I quickly took my package and left with my friends, eager to open it. Inside there was a little tin menorah, a box of blue and white candles and of course, the little chocolate gelt that I so loved. Yet looking at the menorah, I realized that I was going to need some instructions to even remember when or how to light.
Thinking out loud, I looked at my friends and said, “Wow, I feel like such a bad Jew, I can’t even remember which way you light it, if it’s from right to left or left to right…” Before I could figure out why I chose to share this concern of mine, my very own roommate, Jen, the Japanese-American, looked at me and said, loud and clear, “Bad Jew… off to the showers with you!”
Even as I write this now, more than fifteen years after it happened, I get the chills. I honestly can’t even tell you what happened immediately after that, as I just don’t remember. What I do remember is that everything stopped, froze actually, and then my mind started racing as I tried to come up with another explanation, another possibility for what she could have meant. Though no matter how hard I tried, there was simply no explanation…
There was a collective gasp after Jen’s remark, followed by absolute silence. No one said anything. I would like to hope that it was only because they were too shocked to speak, for the possibility that they weren’t bothered by it is too much to bear. I don’t remember walking back to our apartment, the very apartment I shared with this person. The next thing I recall is sitting on my bed, and my best friend, Viviana, was sitting next to me and crying. She couldn’t even talk, she just cried and hugged me and told me she was so sorry.
Even more, I hated her for taking away Chanukah from meNeedless to say, that incident essentially ended my friendship with Jen. She did apologize, over and over again about how it came across wrong and it was just a joke and she didn’t really mean it. I did believe she was sorry, truly sorry. But I felt she was sorry that she verbalized it, not that she was sorry that she thought it and most likely felt it. I could forgive her carelessness in opening her mouth when she shouldn’t have, but how do you forgive someone when they share their true feelings, and those feelings are hatred towards you and your people?
That Chanukah I did not light the menorah. I did absolutely nothing to celebrate Chanukah. At the time, I felt I couldn’t. Everything related to Chanukah suddenly was defined by that statement. Every time I looked at the menorah, all I could think of was “Bad Jew…” I hated Jen so much for what she had said, but even more, I hated her for taking away Chanukah from me.
At the time, I had no way of knowing that this incident would be a major turning point in my life. It turns out that the most significant and life-changing choices I have probably ever made were based on my reaction to her statement. Prior to that day, I had planned on spending my junior year in France. I wanted something exciting and new and foreign. But after that Chanukah, I changed my mind and immediately applied for a space at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. I realized that the only way I could combat what had happened would be to take the time to connect to the very people and place that clearly so many still hated.
My stay in Israel was very difficult at first, and quite a few times I wondered why I had even bothered coming. I was in a situation where due to a falling-out with my parents, I was financially independent that year. With no savings, my only option was to work full-time while studying at the university. The result was a pretty miserable existence. While my friends were out having fun, traveling and enjoying their experience in Israel, I was either in class or working as a waitress, and I rarely saw much outside the classroom or restaurant walls.
During Chanukah break, most of the other kids were visited by their parents and were brought great gifts. This only increased my negativity and left me feeling even more alone and deserted. At that point in time, it seemed that Jen’s statement had taken my love of Chanukah away from me for good.
I wanted to buy something that would last and be meaningfulThen, the day before Chanukah, I came back to my dorm room and there was a card lying on my bed. It read simply, “With wishes for a happy Chanukah. Buy yourself something special!”
Felicia was a girl in the program who knew about my situation and how hard I was working that year. Her parents had come to visit and had given her $100 to buy something for herself. She decided to give me that money.
Needless to say, this was one of the most generous and moving gifts I had ever received. Her love and support completely lifted me out of the depression in which I was quickly sinking. The night before Chanukah I took the money and went shopping. I wanted to buy something that would last and be meaningful. I decided that the one thing I really wanted was a beautiful menorah. I wanted a menorah that I could look at and love and not one that would remind me of Jen.
I spent hours searching for the perfect menorah and finally decided on one where all the branches could move except for the shamash. I felt it perfectly symbolized how I was feeling in life, with everything moving around me and changing, yet at the center of it all, at the core, was stability. That Chanukah I lit the menorah every night, and as I watched the flames leap upwards and increase with the nights, I allowed myself to shed the anger and resentment I had been carrying around with me.
That Chanukah I realized, in a very personal way, that fighting darkness with darkness accomplishes absolutely nothing. But even more so, that there was no point in fighting at all. All I needed to do was bring in light, illuminate myself and my surroundings, and the darkness would immediately dissipate and disappear.
As I recited the blessings – first the one thanking G‑d for the commandment to light the candles, then the blessing about remembering the miracles that were done for our forefathers “in this time” – I realized that this is exactly what it meant. We are all fighting our wars, some with the Greeks outside of ourselves, some with the Greeks within. And they are trying to destroy us, to bring us down, if not physically, then emotionally and spiritually. But we can fight them, and win, even when it seems that all around us it is dark.
Chanukah falls during the two months of the longest nights. There is more darkness during this time than any other time. And if we allow it, the darkness can consume us. But we not only can, but are obligated to banish that darkness. We are commanded to bring light, and increase that light, night after night.
This incident was truly a blessing in disguiseI still get a bit sick when I think about this incident. But I also now recognize that it was truly a blessing in disguise. It was specifically the depth of that darkness, the hurt and hatred which I experienced, which was the catalyst for me to make a change. Change can be hard, and in my case, was very hard. Yet all it took was the love and help of another, the act of one who cared, to turn everything around again.
In the end, my year in Israel was a turning point in my life. Though my program itself was secular, I had the opportunity that year to reconnect and learn about Judaism in an authentic and focused way. And while my decision to live a Torah-observant life was quite a process in itself, it really began that Chanukah – or more precisely, the Chanukah before that Chanukah!
I still have that menorah sitting on my bookshelf. It has traveled with me around the world, and not a Chanukah passes that it isn’t lit. Now, as I light with my husband, a rabbi, and our four beautiful children, I look at that menorah and the range of emotions and lessons that it holds. I look at its moveable arms and think about how quickly things can change, but that no matter what situation we find ourselves in, the flame will always bring us light and warmth as it strives to help us reach higher.
Sara Esther Crispe, a writer, inspirational speaker and mother of four, is the editor of TheJewishWoman.org and writes the popular weekly blog, Musing for Meaning.