I got a call yesterday from a Charleston online newspaper who wanted to interview me on my thoughts about Chanuka in a special section of their newspaper called, “The Local Yokel”. I agreed despite finding it absolutely hysterical to be featured under that section (it seems that no one else finds this name funny but me), but I just couldn’t decline talking about Chanuka.
Since I was a little girl, Chanuka has been my favorite holiday. Just the very word conjures images of lighting the candles and singing Maoz Tzur with my family around the Chanukiot that we made in school, playing dreidel with my Saba and Savta, A”H, and the big plastic dreidels filled with candy that my Savta used to give us, and years later, my children, as a special Chanuka treat. OK, and presents -especially the one I received when I was seven which was my little sister Nava (although it took me quite a number of years until I viewed her as the gift she is).
But my image of Chanuka changed forever eight years ago when I received the shock of my life.
I had been dating my husband for about five months (this is actually a dispute about when we actually started dating, he claims it was four months) when we decided to fly to Chicago so I could meet his parents. Things were going well, but as my husband had never dated anyone else, he was more hesistant than I was about where our relationship was going, which was a cause of anxiety for me. Anyway, we went to Chicago, had a wonderful Shabbos with his family and when Shabbos was over, he asked me if I wanted to go downtown to see the beautiful city at night. I agreed and even invited his sister to join us, but she declined. He drove me to a spot next to the aquarium which is on Lake Michigan overlooking the city and then asked me if I wanted to sit on the lawn and learn some Torah.
Now, I love learning Torah. And I love the outdoors. But it was December. In Chicago. Which means, it was freezing. And I have the blood of an old person, meaning, I am always cold. But we weren’t married yet, which means that I didn’t respond as I would now, (i.e. Ummm… no), and with a shiver, I said brightly, “Sure!” But instead of continuing to learn the piece about Chanuka that we had been learning before, he suggested we learn a piece of Maimonides’ Laws of Repentance. Weird, I thought to myself, but again, bright smile and “Sure!” So with my teeth chattering from the cold and thoughts of Siberia in my head, we sat on the lawn while he read the untimely subject of what does it mean to love G-d? He read about how we are supposed to think about G-d all of the time, when we’re eating and drinking, when we wake up and go to sleep- to be lovesick about G-d the way a man is about a woman. And then he asked me, as he often did when we were learning, “What’s the obvious question?”
So, to give some background here, I was teaching development of Jewish law at the time, and I think analytically in general. So I wondered aloud about the juxtaposition of this law against the previous one, why Maimoides had used this word rather than a different word and my husband (who was not yet my husband) continuously asked, “no, the obvious, obvious question?” . At this point, I was getting annoyed- like, how am I supposed to know what the obvious question is in your head, it’s clearly not obvious to me- and especially not when my brain is frozen with cold. And then he put me out of my misery of trying to discover what the proper question was and asked it himself; “will you marry me?”
I will never forget that feeling of complete and total shock. I had no clue that was coming. And followed by even more shock when he pulled out a diamond ring in the exact style that I would have wanted in my ring size. He must have immediately regretted proposing to a girl who resembled a gaping fish. I just stared at him for a long time in shock saying, “ohmigosh” over and over until he pushed me for an answer, which was, “Yes, ohmigosh. But now can we please go back to the car before I die of frostbite?”
It was the fifth night of Chanuka (incidentally, Nava’s birthday).
How did he know what ring to get? So this is the part of the story that doesn’t paint me in the most positive light, so if I was already lowered in your estimation by admitting that I don’t know how to put blankets in a duvet cover, or that I drink diet Coke for breakfast, this won’t help my cause (and you wonder, why do I admit these things in public?)
A few weeks previous to this momentous occasion, my friend Miriam had called me and we had chatted about a number of different topics before she told me that a friend of hers had just gotten engaged and told me about her ring. She then asked what kind of ring I would want someday. So we discussed and somehow she got my ring size finger out of me too. At some point, I got suspicious and asked her why she was asking me this. My friend Miriam who is brilliant in many ways surpassed her brilliance that day and laughingly responded, “Arie, you have an active imagination. Do you really think Moshe would call me?”
Fair point, I thought and all suspicions were dropped. Yes, I’m a dolt.
You never get over a surprise like that. And since then, Chanuka has been even more special to me than it ever was before.
But somehow, I don’t think that this story would make good material for an interview as the Local Yokel.
So why else is Chanuka special to me? In thinking this over, I’ve come up with three main reasons:
Firstly, I realize that the images of Chanuka that I conjure are all related to family. Chanuka is a time for families to enjoy the beauty of the holiday together. Unlike other holidays which feature a lot of time praying in shul like Rosh Hashana or a lot of mitzvot to keep you busy, like Purim, this is a holiday that is meant to enjoy togetherness. We light candles together. We play dreidel together. We get fat on latkes and doughnuts together. In a busy life, there is nothing more beautiful than having an excuse to experience a fun-filled Jewish holiday together.
Secondly, to me, Chanuka is a time of miracles. It represents the Jewish military victory over the Greeks, of the few against the many. It reminds me that even when the cards are stacked against you, nothing is impossible when G-d is with you. When I say the blessing on the candles of “the miracles that happened during those days, at this time”, I think about the miracles that G-d continues to do for the Jewish people- most notably, the miracle that is the modern State of Israel- our recent case of a victory of the few against the many.
And thirdly, I take great comfort in the Jewish victory over Hellenism which took place during the Chanuka story. The Greeks did not allow the Jews to practice brit mila or to celebrate Shabbat. And yet, here we are, thousands of years later and the Jewish faith is going strong. The mitzvah of brit-mila has become widespread (not personally; I only have daughters) and Shabbat-observance is only growing in numbers. We have not fallen to modern Hellinism. The Jewish people have stood strong.
So as I look forward to lighting my Chanuka candles with my family surrounding me, I eagerly anticipate the light we will bring into the world and the hope it represents.
Happy Chanuka to y’all.