Drawn to the Light

One of my favorite poets, a slam poet named Vanessa Hidary, asks, in one of her remarkable pieces in which she confronts stereotyping of Jews: “What does Jewish look like to you?” Last week, the idea of what Hanukkah looks like was changed forever by the improbable confluence of one young Israeli man, three Romanians, two French women, one young man from Washington and his not-yet-Jewish partner, an older Jewish couple from Miami and their six gentile friends, eight or nine children of mixed ages and their parents, and 20-some adults of all ages from all over the U.S. and many from farther afield.

We sat together in a small, out-of-the-way room, lighting a chanukiah (Hanukkah menorah), chanting blessings, singing songs in our common language — Hebrew — sharing our stories and creating new memories.

How did this crew of unlikely strangers come together? The light drew us. The chanukiah light, yes, but also the light of the holiday, the light of the ancient Temple menorah that resides in our genetic memory and, for those who were not Jewish, their heartfelt fascination with the light. We all sought the flames that affect all of the senses as well as the soul.

Where was this singular room? In the Caribbean — on a ship bound for warmer climes, but the weather outdoors never reached that of the camaraderie that flourished as we shared memories of grandparents’ menorahs and the grief of lost loved ones; hopes for the healing of the ill; profound concern for the vulnerability of fellow Jews and all who are in danger of suffering violence — and all of this in the midst of a remarkable joy – and gratitude —- of being able to share these and other profound emotions on each night of Hanukkah. It was my profound privilege to lead these gatherings. Each evening, as the splendor of the glorious ocean sunset competed unsuccessfully with the Hanukkah lights, I told Hanukkah tales from all over the world — some ancient, some newer. Each story ignited a memory or an emotion that was shared over the pre-dinner kiddush and sufganiyot (real kosher jelly donuts!) provided by the ship. Imaginations were ignited, dinner plans were made, friendships were formed, and addresses exchanged. And all by the light of the menorah.

I have been pondering since what occurred on those evenings. It seems far too simple to say that Jews seek one another out, or share a common bond. I think there is some poetry in the reality that we were all passengers — transient in time and space, all somewhat vulnerable, and all away from our extended families. We were keenly aware that we were in very different places in our lives and on our paths and, therefore, we were all equally “at sea” on this holiday. In a quite beautiful way we knew that we needed one another to make the holiday “happen” in the little room, and in our hearts.

What does Hanukkah look like to me? Now, I can see the light of the chanukiah being cast not simply to my family and the occasional passer-by, but extending to fellow life passengers in far-away lands — perhaps the lands from which my stories came – and to those whom I have not, and will never meet. And I will be forever changed for the better by, and be grateful to, these wonderful souls who glowed with the miraculous light of their own souls into the hearts and memories of us all.



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