Hanukah and Advent candles

Opinion: Columns

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By Tom Holmes

Monday morning Pastor Walter Mitty and his neighbor Michael Rosenthal walked over to the Retro for a latte and a chance to unpack the previous week's ups and downs in the security of their friendship.

"Where'd you get your Advent candles?" Michael asked his friend, holding on to the warmth of the coffee cup with both hands and adding, "It's cold outside."

"Had to order them online," Mitty replied.

"Me too," said Michael. "Couldn't find anywhere in Poplar Park that sold a set of candles for Hanukkah."

"What's Advent?" asked Zaphne, as she cleared away the cups away from the table next to the two friends. "I heard of Hanukkah. Something to do with a dreidel, I think. But I never heard of Advent."

Mitty looked at Michael, raised his eyebrows, turned to the Retro's young owner and said, "You know about Christmas and Easter, right?"

"Sure," Zaphne replied. "Poinsettias and Easter Lilies. Santa and the Easter Bunny."

Michael noticed how sad his friend looked as Mitty explained, "Well, Christmas is also about the birth of Jesus. . . ."

"Oh, I remember that from Sunday school," Zaphne said, interrupting her regular customer, excited that she could relate to him in a religious way. "Mary, Joseph, a baby in a manger, shepherds, wise men—all of that, right?"

"Right you are," said Mitty, with an attempt at a complimentary smile. "And Advent is the church season right before Christmas. Four Sundays when we prepare for Jesus' coming."

"Oh, so that's what the wreath with four candles is about!"

Michael added, "And you're right about the dreidel being part of Hanukkah, but the story of Hanukkah is more important. It's about a foreign king who ruled over the Jewish people and desecrated everything that was holy to them. So when the Jewish people rebelled and kicked the bad king out of Israel, they had to rededicate the temple. It's a story about a miracle, about a lamp in the temple burning for eight days when the priests only had enough oil for one day."

"So that's why Hanukkah cards have that candelabra on them," said Zaphne, feeling proud of herself for acquiring a new insight. "To remember the miracle!"  

"Right again," said Michael, winking at Mitty.

After Zaphne had left the two friends, Mitty said, "Michael, I've been meaning to ask you. I know all about Judas Maccabeus, the revolt, the cleansing of the temple, and the miracle of the lights. But what do serious Jews make of that story? I mean, what meaning do they get from it for living in these times?"

Michael gathered his thoughts for a minute as the two men sipped their coffee. "As you probably suspect," he began, "the members of my temple respond to the holiday in different ways. Rabbi Horowitz tries to play the whole thing down. He says it's a minor holiday to begin with and that it's gotten too commercial with Hanukkah geld and presents and eating too many pontshkes. He says it's a weak attempt to compete with Santa Claus."

Mitty had to laugh in spite of himself. 

"I can relate to that," he said. "I feel like Santa has hijacked Christmas."

"But others," Michael continued, "see the story of the lamp burning for eight days with only one day's worth of oil as a story to strengthen our people's faith that God will provide what we need."

"But how does that take on the holiday square with what happened at Tree of Life in Pittsburgh?"

Michael explained, "You're right. That's a question all thoughtful Jews ask. One answer is the perspective that the fact that the Jewish people exist at all—the survival of our people—is a great miracle in itself. We've been persecuted, excluded, murdered, confined to ghettoes for how many thousands of years, and yet we have survived."

Mitty let his friend's words soak in without saying anything. He had visited Dachau on a trip to Germany and could understand a little bit of how Michael felt.

"But, you know, Walt," said Michael, after pausing to let his friend digest what he was saying, "lately I've been thinking a lot about Judas Maccabeus, the guy most associated with the revolt which kicked the Seleucids out of Israel. The Seleucids had desecrated the holy temple in Jerusalem, setting up an altar to Zeus in the temple and even sacrificing pigs there."

"If I remember my history correctly," said Mitty, "the Seleucids were trying to make Hellenistic Greeks out of the Jewish people."

"You're spot on, Walt. You see why I get emotional about Hanukkah? I know it's a minor holiday, but the Seleucids tried to ban circumcision. They were trying to erase our identity as a people. And Judas Maccabeus drew a line. We Jews have adapted to all kinds of cultures over the centuries, but there comes a time when your identity is at stake, and you get off your rear end and you fight."

As Mitty listened to his friend, his mind went back to the day before, to the first rehearsal for the children's Christmas pageant. The pageant was always cute with the children dressing up in bath robes as shepherds and followed a romantic narrative the refrain for which was "sleep in heavenly peace. Sleep in heavenly peace."

After a long period of silence, in which Mitty and Michael were both lost in their own thoughts, Mitty asked, "So Michael, in these times, what do we need? A Judas Maccabeus or a baby in a manger? What should we pray for? In this darkness, what light should we follow into a better future?"

"That one candle we each lit yesterday doesn't shed much light," was all Michael had to say.

"I know," said Mitty, "but it's better than cursing the darkness."

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