Chanuka is a celebration of strength – Jewish strength. Not the commonly pictured concept of martial superiority, but the unique strength that typifies the Jewish people – the quiet, inner strength to overcome the tests we encounter and guard that precious pitcher of undefiled oil – our Jewish soul.
For many non-religious Jews, lighting the colorful candles of the menora is one of their few, tenuous connections with Judaism. For many, as well, it is this inner strength exemplified by Chanuka that gives them the capacity to kindle their dormant link to their Jewish heritage.
PROUD TO BE JEWISH
Devora Shtein* grew up in Ontario, Canada. Although her family was Jewish, and even lit the Chanuka menora, their main holiday was celebrated on December 25.
“Every year,” says Devora, “we would hang stockings up by the fireplace on the eve of December 25, and the next morning we would find a pile of gifts awaiting us.”
One year, when Devora was all of six-years-old, she indignantly told her parents that she does not want anymore presents on that day.
“We are Jewish,” she said, “and Jews don’t celebrate December 25.”
Devora still remembers, almost 40 years later, how she felt that first year. “December 25th felt empty,” she said. “All my friends were showing off their new bicycles and dolls, and I had nothing. I felt as though I was missing something.
“But I still remember that proud feeling of lighting the Chanuka candles a few days later, and knowing that I was following in the footsteps of the Macabees. My parents allowed me to recite the blessing, in both English and Hebrew, and then light the Chanuka menora. And then, for eight full days, I received many Chanuka presents.
“As young as I was, I realized that I was unique because I was a Jew, and that I had to behave just a bit better than my non-Jewish classmates. Even though I knew almost nothing of my religion, I was very proud of my Jewish roots.
“As a child, I would love to sit and watch the flickering candles, and feel that strong connection with my Jewish ancestors. It was only many years later, however, that I took that feeling one step farther and became a Torah observant Jew.”
A DIFFICULT LESSON
Early one morning, while Chani Fuerst * was still sound asleep, her three young children decided to light Chanuka candles – all by themselves. With incredible ingenuity, they placed a chair on top of a table, and then, with the help of a long broomstick, secreted the box of candles and matches from their “safe” place in the closet.
Very, very quietly, so as not to wake up their mother, they lit an impromptu menora on the shelf that stood high above the crib where their baby brother was peacefully sleeping.
Chani was rudely awakened by her children’s terrified screams. The lit menora had fallen into the baby’s crib, and the down quilt had burst into flames. “I ran into the room and saw fire everywhere,” said Chani.
Chani intuitively knew what she must do. She grabbed her burning baby and wrapped the rug around him to extinguish the flames. “Thank God,” she said, “I had just bought non-flammable pajamas the previous day. The doctors later told me that that had saved my baby’s life.”
Even so, Chani’s child suffered third decree burns on a large portion of his body.
Chani spent the most of that Chanuka hovering over a hospital bed. “Finally, a very warm and loving relative offered to stay with my baby so I could go home,” she said. “At first I didn’t want to leave, but this relative insisted that I get a little rest and try to cheer myself up a bit.”
When Chani unexpected arrived home, she discovered that her husband had taken the older three children to visit their great aunt. She was all alone in an empty apartment.
“The first thing I did,” said Chani, “was to walk into the children’s room, where the fire had taken place. There was nothing left of the baby’s crib and blankets, and everything else in the room was black and sooty.
“I, too, felt black and miserable,” continued Chani. “Here it was, Chanuka –a time of family and rejoicing - and I was all alone in my depressing burnt-out home. We didn’t have a phone at the time, so I couldn’t even cheer myself up by calling a friend.”
Chani just couldn’t face the loneliness and decided to visit one of her friendly neighbors. “But before I could knock on my neighbor’s door,” she said, “I heard the entire family singing Chanuka songs together. It just did not feel right to intrude on their family time.”
Chani returned to her dark apartment.
“As painful as that experience was for me,” said Chani, “I learned just how important it is for us to extend hospitality to lonely people. We shouldn’t wait for them to turn to us. No Jew should ever have to spend a holiday alone.”
FAMILY TIME IN MOSCOW
Leah Levin* is originally from Moscow and moved to Eretz Yisroel almost 35 years ago. Her family was one of the few who kept Torah and mitzvot in the spiritual wasteland of the Soviet Union.
Leah’s family did not own a real menora. Instead, they used hallowed out potato halves and filled them with olive oil. The homemade menora was lit next to the closed front door and the family was careful to guard it from the eyes of strangers.
Chanuka was a special, family time. Leah’s mother made donuts, called “putchikas,” and her father “farhered” (tested their Torah learning) all the children of the small religious community.
“Every year my parents made a little party for the few orthodox families that lived in Moscow,” said Leah. “After my father tested the children on what they had learned, he handed out plenty of prizes. Even though we did not study in a religious school, all the children studied privately.”
ONE YEAR TO WAIT
Sara Roth* converted to Judaism several years ago. She had been raised as a devoted Christian, and later studied in a post high-school theological seminary. Sara was different from the other students, however, for she was truly searching for the truth. She asked her teachers many penetrating questions. Most were left unanswered.
Sara eventually married another seminary student and moved to a rural mountain area in the southern United States. There, Sara and her husband raised their almost dozen children far away from the secular influences of television, radio and popular magazines.
It was during this time that Sara began to have serious doubts about her own beliefs and started to explore the many different world religions. Eventually, she began to see the truth inherent in the Torah.
Sara’s husband and parents sternly warned her that she would be severely punished for her lack of faith.
Sara’s two older boys were also searching for truth and found their way to Jerusalem. They converted to Judaism and began to learn in a yeshiva for beginners.
The boys’ first visit home coincided with Chanuka. When Sara saw them light the Chanuka menorah and heard of the self-sacrifice and purity that they represented, she decided to act on her newly discovered beliefs and convert to Judaism.
Sara was told that she must wait a full year before becoming a member of the Jewish nation. It was a difficult year for Sara, but she knew that she must persevere and prove to others – and herself – that she truly wanted to be Jewish.
And by the following Chanuka, Sara – together with her entire family - was able to recite the brachot and light the Chanuka menora as full-fledged members of the Jewish Nation.
A MYSTERIOUS MIRACLE
When nine-year-old Rafi Levi* refused to get out of bed in the morning, Naomi* was not overly concerned. It was Chanuka vacation and the children had stayed up very late the night before.
But when she saw Rafi crawl to the bathroom, she began to feel uneasy.
“Rafi was an extremely mischievous child, and I was sure that he was just playing another game,” said Naomi, “so I told him to please stop being so silly and get up. After all, it was after 10 o’clock in the morning.”
But Rafi told his mother that it was too painful to stand on his legs. When Naomi looked down, she noticed that both ankles were slightly swollen.
“His temperature was slightly elevated, so I decided to call pediatrician,” said Naomi. “He did not seem overly concerned and told me to bring Rafi into his office later on that afternoon.”
Naomi was surprised when, a couple of hours later, the doctor appeared at her front door. “He told us that he felt uneasy about waiting.”
The doctor told Naomi to take Rafi straight to the local hospital.
Naomi’s husband came home from work and brought Rafi to the hospital, while Naomi was charged with lighting the Chanuka lights.
“I felt very lonely lighting the menora without my husband,” said Naomi. “The other children were also subdued, and since we light in a common courtyard, everyone realized that something had happened.”
That evening, Rafi was admitted to the hospital “for observation.” Since everything seemed fine, Naomi’s husband returned home for the night.
When Naomi arrived at the hospital the next morning, she found Rafi lying in bed, staring at the ceiling. She tried to hand him a siddur to pray, but Rafi told her that he was not able to move his hands.
Rafi’s hands and arms had turned blue and were swollen to over twice their normal size.
At that moment, everything seemed to happen very fast. Within minutes a team of doctors had hustled the child out of the room, and placed him in an isolation ward. Blood was taken and specialists were called, but no one seemed to have even the slightest inkling of what had happened to Rafi.
By that afternoon, Rafi’s feet had returned to normal, but his upper legs and abdomen had ballooned out to enormous proportions and he was unable to move his monstrous body.
A specialist from another hospital came to examine the young boy, and after a series of difficult tests came to the conclusion that Rafi was suffering from an unusual form of a rare autoimmune disorder.
But no seemed to know when – and if - Rafi would recover.
By the next day, Rafi lower abdomen had returned to normal, but his chest was now over twice its normal size.
Over the eight days of Chanuka, the strange disease passed through Rafi’s entire body, beginning at his toes and ending with his head. When Rafi’s neck became swollen, the doctors, afraid that he would not be able to breathe, were about to perform tracheotomy. But the swelling moved higher and the neck returned to its normal size. Now, however, the doctors were worried that Rafi would lose his eyesight. Once again, the swelling moved up and the medical staff gave a sigh of relief.
On the last day of Chanuka, the swelling had gone complete up – and out the top of Rafi’s head. It left Rafi’s body just as mysteriously as had begun.
“I guess it was just something we had to go through” Naomi said. “God wanted us to spend that Chanuka with Rafi in the hospital. We consider it a true miracle that our beloved son recovered.”
THE LIGHT OF MARITAL HARMONY
Leah Prager* grew up in a totally assimilated home. “I did not know who the Macabees were,” she said, “and the only blessing that I knew how to say was the blessing for lighting the Chanuka menora.”
Leah graduated university with a degree in psychology and later began to work as a full-time therapist. One winter, she went to a professional conference and found herself fascinated as an orthodox rabbi gave a speech peppered with Jewish anecdotes and stories.
The next day, another rabbi gave a speech about the importance of sincerity. “Serving God must be real,” he said, “and not fake.”
“At that moment,” said Leah, “I realized that if God had meaning to me, I would have to get in touch with my own religion.”
Leah moved to Eretz Yisroel and studied in a yeshiva for newly religious women. A few years later she married another returnee to Judaism.
Leah and her husband, however, found that they had serious problems, and it did not look as though their marriage would last. One day, Leah packed her bags and told her husband that she was going to take a month off to reevaluate her life - and marriage.
Leah went back to New York and arranged to speak the Lubovitcher Rebbe. When she told the Rebbe her story, he did not advise her to give up. Instead, he told her to read every book possible on marital harmony.
“He promised me,” said Leah, “that if I would do that, I would see a real improvement in my own marriage."
Leah returned home right before Chanuka. She knew that she, too, had an important light to kindle – the light of true marital harmony – and devoted herself fully to her new endeavor.
Aside from building a beautiful Jewish home, Leah became such an expert in marital problems that that eventually she became a much-sought-after marriage counselor.
Leah and her husband moved to Modiin, located near the graves of the Macabees. “Every year, on Chanuka,” said Leah, “my family makes a ‘thanksgiving feast.’ After all, it was the light of Chanuka that brought me home – to my heritage and to my family.”