When I was a child, the holiday season always saw our family gathered in the living room, standing quietly in front of the Chanuka menora. We lit the special candles for eight days. We said the blessings each night to recall the miraculous story of the Maccabees, the Jewish "freedom fighters."
We learned in Sunday School that lighting the menora is a reminder and a celebration that right can overcome might, and light can dispel darkness. My brother and I took turns lighting the candles. A room and a family full of light and warmth. That was Chanuka for me.
All that was many years ago. As a lawyer and community worker, I had gone far afield from any connection to Jewish tradition, even modern-style. I had not lit a menora in years, nor really even thought of it. Yet, for some reason, I had begun to feel a need to explore my Jewish "roots." Maybe that was why I found myself walking toward Union Square in San Francisco one cold December night. My family was going to light a menora, and not just any menora. This one was 30 feet high.
We get there at about 4:00. The Square is empty and cold. The benches are staked out by the street people. The scene in front of me is a let-down. Then I see a flurry of movement. There's the menora! I point it out to my daughter, Sarah. As we approach it, it grows bigger in perspective until we're in front of it, looking up at its simple, elegant form. Quite in proportion to the Square after all.
The action is next to the menora. Parked in the corner of the Square is a camper with a paint job that reads "Mitzva Mobile" and "Chabad House." The Chabad House in Berkeley sponsors this menora. These Lubavitchers believe in reaching out and sharing their celebration of Jewish life with all Jews, from the very religious to the totally nonreligious. Consequently, they're here. Also consequently, I am a welcome guest, I who haven't seen, much less lit, a menora in over a decade.
In fact, I soon find myself swept up in a bear hug of a greeting by a tall young man in black hat, long coat and bright red beard. "Shalom Aleichem," he says. "Greetings, brother!" This is Yosef Langer, one of the organizers of the event.
There is still time until the lighting, so we just sit and wait. I look around and think to myself, this is an odd scene. Beyond the little circle of activity near the menora, the Square still belongs to the night and the street people.
Some of the Square-dwellers come over to check out these strange newcomers. It's not a totally comfortable interaction. One fellow is openly hostile. A tall man, long black leather coat draped over his shoulders, walks back and forth loudly proclaiming his opinions of this event-as well as of Israel, Zionists, Jews. The opinions are not flattering and my urban paranoia takes hold and a wave of fear comes and goes. It doesn't contribute much to a festive atmosphere. It's disturbing. It upsets my fantasy picture. Reality always does.
I am caught up in these different strains of fantasy, reality, warmth, hostility, celebration, resentment. I begin to wonder, What are we doing here? Celebrations like this are more of a private affair, aren't they? Like my childhood memories-home and hearth, everyone gathered in the living room. But in the middle of Union Square? My thoughts drift, and I give up trying to figure it out.
When I look up, there are many more people than I noticed just a few minutes before. The beginnings of a crowd, and quite an interesting crowd at that. Easily four generations here tonight. The little circle of 45 minutes ago has grown to fill over half the Square. Everyone is talking to his friends, or to new-found friends.
It's a full five minutes before the emcee on the platform can get everyone's attention. The man at the mike-black hat, black beard, and big smile-is Rabbi Chaim Drizin. When the crowd finally quiets down he speaks, giving a little introduction about the Chabad House and about Chanuka. After the introductions, Rabbi Drizin launches into a story that teaches a lesson.
The Rabbi finishes the story to a round of applause, and the nicest part of all this to me is that somehow this story has the effect of drawing the crowd closer, making the Square a more "homey" place. We all seem to be joined in a moment of shared intimacy. Almost like a family. Is it possible that this menora lighting mirrors my childhood recollection? Only the family is much bigger.
Yosef, my red-bearded friend from earlier on, plunges into the crowd carrying high a lit torch so that each of us can touch it and join in the lighting of the candles. He is moving slowly, allowing each one to join, to make contact. Children are lifted to touch the torch. There is no pushing. All are confident of being included. I lift Sarah and she puts her hand next to Yosef's for a moment.
As the torch moves on, Rabbi Drizin starts singing and urges the crowd to join him. Shema Yisrael-Hear O Israel, the L-rd our G-d, the L-rd is One. The words echo the feeling given by the passing torch-the unity and commonalty of this body of Jewish people of different ages, types, cultures, languages, in affirming their connection to each other and to their faith.
Singing along and watching the progress of the torch, I am suddenly aware that a man is pushing through the crowd toward Yosef. It is the man who, much earlier, was angrily proclaiming his anti-Jewish feelings. He approaches Yosef. I feel myself tighten. Does he want to try to stop Yosef, grab the torch? It seems crazy, but who knows...?
He is closer now, almost at Yosef's side. From the man's face, it is impossible to read his intent. Now he is next to Yosef, and he reaches up. He puts his hand on the torch, not just touching but holding it tight. Yosef stops momentarily. Here is where fantasy meets reality, I am thinking.
And-I see this very clearly-Yosef looks directly into the man's eyes, gently puts his other hand on the man's arm, and gives a kind of quiet nod. A gesture of recognition, a silent request for mutual respect. All this in just a few seconds. And then the man's hand relaxes its hold. Yosef moves on. The man recedes to the crowd's edge. Looking at him after some moments, I see that he is singing.
From this moment until the end of the evening, the quality of that interaction stays with me and begins to pull together the different feelings I've experienced here. I begin to feel that this event has a lot to do with Chanuka. Chanuka, when the tiny Maccabean band vanquished the foreign armies, when a tiny supply of oil lasted eight days. When, in an apparently magical way, light reigned and darkness was driven back, figuratively and literally.
But behind the magical moment when the light drives back the darkness, perhaps there is always a lifetime, a generation, an eon, of hard work and careful investment. That builds our knowledge and awareness and spiritual strength, until we are able to burst forth in the moment of need and make manifest the "magic," the light, the Divine spark, that is always latent within us and around us.
Completing his circuit with the torch Yosef hands it to Rabbi Drizin, who climbs into the cherrypicker and is lifted to the top of the menora. The blessings are said and the first candle is lit on this first night of Chanuka.
For the first time in 15 years there was a menora in my home after that night in Union Square. We lit it together and put it in Sarah's window. To shine light out into the darkness. We'll do it again this year, too. After all, like the Chasidic saying goes, you can't fight darkness with a stick.
Reprinted from the San Francisco Chronicle