Commentary: Sense of Direction
“Judah my son, I compare you to Judah the son of Jacob who was likened to a lion…” – Megillat Antiochus a Since making aliya decades ago, I’ve lost count of my trips to the States, but only once was I here for Hanukka. Curiously, that one time proved more enlightening than the 28 Hanukkas I celebrated in Israel.
It was 1987. After 10 years in Israel, my wife and I schlepped our two sabra kids on a cross-country trip that ended late in November in Fresno, California, a city better known for grapes and Armenians than Yiddishkeit. We enrolled them in Powers, a public school in a middle-class neighborhood. After navigating the choppy seas of Israeli schools, Powers afforded a harbor of concord, discipline, dedicated teachers, free books and crayons and weekly spelling tests. Ten days later, Miri presented me with a note from her 2nd-grade teacher.
“Just read it, Daddy. It’s nothing bad.”
It was an invitation from Miss Dossie to speak to her class about the customs of Hanukka. Aha! That time of year. If in Israel Christmas comes and goes with hardly a peep, here the clamor was inescapable. Hanukka needed champions. So it came to pass that on the following Wednesday I spent the better part of a morning in Powers’s flag-adorned classrooms.
The 8-year-olds were polite and attentive. Conflating legend and history, I recounted how Judah Maccabee defeated the army of Antiochus, triumphantly entered Jerusalem and purified the sullied Holy Temple. Then a miracle—the small quantity of olive oil lasted for eight days. From my briefcase I dramatically produced dreidel, olive oil and hanukkiya—my holy props. After spinning my way into the good graces of my audience, I called for questions.
“Where is Israel?”
“Why do you wear that beanie?”
And then the biggie: “What about Christmas and baby Jesus?”
“Jews,” quoth I, “believe that Jesus was a very wise Jewish man, sort of a prophet.”
“Like Judah McBee?” persisted my small interlocutor.
“Also, in his way,” I replied feebly. I had reserved an ace in the hole for this very moment. “Now I’ll show you how we light this special candle holder, a menora. On each of the eight days of Hanukka, Jewish kids get a present. We light one candle the first night, two on the second, until we get to eight. We’ll just pretend it’s now the 8th night, so, starting on the right, watch while I insert eight candles. Then, starting from the opposite direction, eight of you chosen by Miss Dossie will light them with this other candle.”
If this wowed them, it startled me. Suddenly this traditional, two-directional choreography was newly illuminated: Were not right-to-left a modality for the sacred tongue, left-to-right for the vernacular? For millennia Jews have performed this contrapuntal paso doble: right-to-left Land of Israel, left-to-right diaspora. All candles finally aglow, this most nationalistic of holidays also embraced an unsuspected symbolic oneness, perhaps a hint of universalism.
Then, after bestowing a mini-Mars bar upon each kid, the Jewish Santa Claus left the classroom on a cloud of glory. Only in recounting my triumph later did it strike me that our guy Maccabee is actually an embodiment of the Jewish idea of the messiah, not the lamb of God but a lion. He conquered our foes, entered Jerusalem and purified the Temple. That, Hanukka implicitly rejoins, is how a real messiah should behave. More than the text, the subtext illuminates how the dinky miracle of the cruse of oil has become commensurate with the claims of Christmas.
“Daddy, don’t you have any leftover McBee bars for us for Chr… Hanukka?”