Festival of light & life

by Rabbi Celso Cukierkorn

When I was growing up in Brazil, nobody made a very big deal about the Hanukkah holiday (or the Chanukah holiday for that matter).

There are so many holy days in the Jewish calendar and so many other more significant holidays that, when it came to a festival like Hanukkah, we did not pay much attention to it.

The one thing that I do remember, however - the one tradition besides lighting the candles on the menorah that I know we always did - was playing a game with my brother and our friends with a special four-sided top called a dreidle. For me, it was my introduction to gambling because the items - the letters on each of the sides of the top - were the key to whether you won what was in the pot (usually coins or chocolates) or whether you had to contribute more to it for the next child to win.

Now those letters on the sides of the top had another significance besides the potential winnings. Those four letters in Hebrew (nun, gimel, hay and shin) stood for the words: "A great miracle happened there."

And, of course, for those of you who may know the story of Hanukkah, those words - that phrase - actually summarize that story and the reason for the festival:

When the small Jewish army recaptured the temple in Jerusalem and were taking the steps needed to reclaim and rededicate that holy building, they discovered that they only had a one day's supply of the particular kind of oil necessary to light a special flame in the temple - and it would take some eight days to make enough of that oil to rekindle that flame on a permanent basis.

But, lo, a great miracle happened in Jerusalem - that small amount of oil - that single day's worth - kept the holy flame lit for eight full days, until a new supply was prepared. Thus we celebrate Hanukkah - the festival of lights - for a full eight days and we rekindle our spirits and rededicate ourselves ... and we gamble with our dreidles.

Now I have been in this country all of my adult years and, while the role of Hanukkah in contemporary Jewish life in America is dramatically different than what I experienced as a child - for many here it is clearly the functional equivalent of the Jewish Christmas - I really never viewed this festival as something very significant. Sure, it was important to the children in the religious schools in the several synagogues where I've worked and I'm clearly not adverse to receiving Hanukkah gifts from my friends, family and congregants, but I never devoted a lot of energy to my celebration of the holiday - until now.

You see, last year during the Hanukkah season, I witnessed an astonishing event: my daughter Sophie was born. For me, a great miracle happened there, or rather, it happened here in Hattiesburg. And those letters on the dreidle, that story of the continuously burning oil, has taken on a whole new meaning and an entirely new significance for me.

My wonderful daughter has brought new light into my life and has rekindled my beliefs and has helped me rededicate my devotion.

And when you think about it, that really is the importance of this holiday season whatever we call it and however we celebrate it.

Whether you consecrate the birth of your lord or joyously celebrate the birth of your own child or just cherish the chance to gather for a meal with your family, this is a very important time of the year - one that for me will never be the same.

Originally published December 24, 2005 in the Hattiesburg American.