So last night was my firsty-first first-time ever celebrating the first night of Chanukah. A minor eight-day holiday by Jewish standards, but a major one when you’re the equivalent of a wide-eyed little Jewish six-year-old inside. My friend, Mrs. Welles Park Bulldog, sent me an email on Facebook saying: “A friend once told me how her baby’s eyes danced in the lights of her first Chanuaka. May your eyes dance tonight and for the next eight nights too.” Little did she know some of the light might be coming from the burning carpet.
I celebrated night one with Overly Frank, who donated table space and a quiet house on the condition I bring food. (He wasn’t expecting kosher hors d’oeuvres–yay, Cohen’s!) We began the holiday with Frank screening the Chanukah song from South Park on Netflix. I got him back, though, when I pulled out a two-sheet, Hebrew-English script so that he–and really, I–would better understand the point of the evening.
While the Cohen’s munchies were cooling off, I set up the chanukiyah I bought last month at the Spertus Institute gift shop (yay, Spertus Institue!), and proceeded to light the shamash (the helper candle that lights the others.) That’s when the wooden match with an obvious crack (I should have known better) broke in half as it was being lit, fell to the floor between Frank’s legs, and started to smolder the carpet.
We both stared at the little Chanukah disaster in the making for a few moments, me being more than usually acutely aware of Adonai’s sense of humor. Then, back to my senses, I thought, smother it, quick! So I did, with the first thing I could think of. The box of the other 249 wooden matches that I was still holding in my left hand.
Personally, I think it would have worked, if Frank hadn’t butted in and hysterically started to stomp on the box of matches to try and put out the fire underneath. Luckily, there was only a teeny scorch mark on the box, hardly noticeable. (The dime-sized melted area on the carpet is only slightly more apparent.)
When we both stopped laughing, Frank posted about the incident across his entire social-media network, and Chanukah officially began. I told Frank about the background of the Jewish people and this history of the holiday. I recounted how in 165 BCE Judah Maccabee and his forces retook the Second Temple. I told him about the miracle of the oil, how, when they rededicated the temple (Chanukah means “dedication”), they only had one night of ritually pure oil to light the sanctuary menorah, but how it lasted eight nights–enough time to create more ritual oil to keep the menorah illuminated.
I seated the first candle on the right of the chanukiyah, lit the shamash (successfully this time), and began to sing the blessings in Hebrew. Frank followed along in translation:
Blessed are You, oh Lord our God, Sovereign of the universe…who hallows us with mitzvot, commanding us to kindle the Chanukah lights…who performed wonderous deeds for our ancestors in days of old at this season…for giving us life, sustaining us, and enabling us to reach this precious occasion.
I started to cry halfway through, but managed to pull it together enough to take the shamash and light the first candle. Then I sang my way through Maoz Tzur.
Then I sat there, while Frank continued to roll his eyes about the carpet, and watched the candles burn. I pondered the point of Chanukah, a minor religious holiday based on a questionably accurate element of a historical event. It’s not the “Jewish Christmas.” It has nothing to do with gift-giving except for its nearness to the Christian holiday and the need to keep little Jewish children involved in their own heritage.
I think it has to do with faith in the face of impossible odds–a truly Jewish take on life if ever there was one. Eight nights of light from one-night’s worth of oil. Honor your principles and your integrity above all else. God helps those who help themselves. Don’t be afraid to be your authentic self. It’s all wrapped up in the miracle of the oil for me. I realized this really was the feeling I had missed all along in my many years of celebrating a secular Christmas.
And I resolved to inspect my matchsticks before night two.