Chanukah, Soviet Jewry and a Timeless Lesson for Our Children

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A number of years ago I was asked what parents and educators could do to teach our children about the message of the Chanukah candles. I refer here not to the lighting itself, or the laws pertaining to it, nor the songs, games, gifts and food that have become the hallmarks of many a celebration, but rather what do we tell them about the significance of the holiday, its relevance to our lives, bayamim ha-hem b’zman ha-zeh, both then and now.

Truth be told, Chanukah candles were originally intended as a message to all those passing by our window on their way home from the marketplace; the candles, after all, were lit outside the front door opposite the mezuzah. The ideal time to light was thus around dusk. But as work patterns changed and the days got longer, as buildings got taller and the possibility existed that no one would be able to see high enough into one’s window, as anti-Semites posed the risk of vandalism, there was an emphasis on lighting the candles less for passersby than for the people inside one’s own home. And yet what is the message that we convey to our children about these candles? Do we simply light the candles and let them burn out or do we try to light a fire within as well?

Personally, I always think of another historical event that took place during this time: December 6, 1987 – when 250,000 Jews gathered from all over the country to advocate on behalf of Soviet Jewry. It is hard to imagine a country like the Soviet Union with close to 3 million Jews and yet with little or no Judaism. Save for a few pockets of some incredibly courageous and committed Jews, for the majority there were virtually no schools or Hebrew teachers or kosher food or brit milah. A modern-day Chanukah story where most Jews had long since assimilated and the light of Judaism was nearly snuffed out. And yet, thanks to the extraordinary and near miraculous courage of a small number of modern-day Maccabees, Jewish life was maintained during the darkness of Soviet rule and subsequently begun anew by those who came to identify Jewishly for the first time as refuseniks.

For our part, the Soviet Jewry movement represented a kind of “coming of age” for the community. Wracked by a certain amount of guilt and shame for fear that not enough had been done on behalf of Jews in the Shoah, the community was determined not to let it happen again. It didn’t happen overnight, however. As is so often the case, it began with a small group of people, primarily students, who decided to speak out.

Thanks to their efforts, combined with a host of other factors, the spark of protest lit a fire that spread internationally. There were protests and marches, petitions and lobbying and, most important, there was a growing sense of pride in the community as we found our individual and collective Jewish voice. It proved that we could stand up for our Jewishness, that we could impact the American political system and world politics, all while asserting our Jewish identities. The movement was thus about fighting for the freedom of Soviet Jews from external oppression, simultaneous to our internal fight for freedom from our own self-imposed silence and insecurity. The cry “Never again” had different meanings internally and externally.

And yet, in at least one significant way the movement was a failure. As I have heard Natan Sharansky say on numerous occasions, a generation of Jews spent 10, 15 or 20 years or more fighting a battle that we ultimately won and yet, amazingly, we failed to tell our children about it. Our kids for the most part have no idea of our struggles or those of Soviet Jews; they have no idea what it meant to take to the streets, work the system, and change the world. And they do not know the story because, quite simply, we haven’t shared it with them. I recall a guest who was invited to talk about the events asking a group of 14-year-olds if they had ever been to a rally; none had. And the only petition anyone had signed was to protest the cancellation of her favorite TV show. The fault for this lack of involvement and lack of knowing their own history lies with us.

Perhaps the first lesson of those Chanukah candles, then, is that they should not stand silent but that inside our own homes we need to tell these stories, our story, our chronicles about the Maccabees of yore, and the Maccabees of Israel’s War of Independence and of Soviet Jewry. We need to tell our kids what these stories mean to us including what we as individuals, as a community and as a people have accomplished. We need to share with them our pride and not assume that they just “get it” by osmosis or will learn about it one day. They may not, and so we must teach it to them both explicitly and purposefully.

The second lesson is that we need to do a better job, I think, of teaching our kids to look not only at the message of the lights within, but to use them to look out the window as well. With regard to the outside world, we need to tell our kids that they need to stand up and be counted. They need to take an interest in the events beyond themselves and to dedicate themselves to sending the message that we will not allow the darkness of anti-Semitism or oppression of any people to go unchallenged. We need to teach them that they indeed have the power to change the world and to fulfill our national destiny to be a light unto the nations, ba-yamim ha-hem b’zman ha-zeh, in those days and in our own.

Chanukah Sameach v’Shabbat Shalom.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.