Perhaps the most hopeful sign at this year’s menorah lighting in City Hall on Dec. 7 was two Jewish kids, one African American and the other Caucasian, playing the dreidel game on one of the tables just prior to the event.
A dreidel is a pointy, four-sided top that can be made to spin on its base. There are Hebrew letters on each of its sides, which stand for deep cabalistic notions but can also serve in small-time gambling.
These kids weren’t playing for money, but merely for the privilege of winning, and their laughter filled the City Council chambers despite the otherwise solemn mood in the room.
This was was the second day of a nine-day ritual celebrating the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah.
Although Hanukkah isn’t seen as one of the most holy of Jewish holidays, the Festival of Lights reflects one of the great traditions of endurance that has long marked the history of the Jewish people.
Each year, the memory of a time when Jews struggled to maintain their identity in the Maccabean Revolt of the second century BCE (Before Common Era) seems to serve as a metaphor for ongoing struggles inside and outside the United States.
This year, rabbis from Jersey City, Hoboken, and elsewhere gathered with public officials and others to light the second of these candles.
“We meet again after another year,” said Rabbi Baruch Lepkiver. “This is a source of inspiration in this time of national and international issues, of terrorism and killers, of innocent people losing their lives. People are looking for answers.”
In some ways, Hanukkah symbolizes people’s ability to overcome such problems.
“No terrorist action is ever justified.” – Rabbi Baruch Lepkiver
Hanukkah is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt – a terrible yet glorious testimony to the Jewish faith. Jewish guerilla fighters known as Maccabees successfully beat back the Hellenistic army of Syria.
“Not even Jews believed they could win,” Lepkiver said.
The second miracle is one of oil
According to tradition as recorded in the Talmud, there was very little oil left that had not been defiled by the Greeks. Jews needed oil for the menorah (candelabrum) in the Temple which according to custom was supposed to continue burning through the night every night. But the temple only had enough oil to burn for one day, and yet miraculously, the oil lasted eight. An eight-day festival was declared to commemorate this miracle.
The festival is observed by the kindling of the lights of a unique candelabrum, the nine-branched menorah or Hanukah. One additional candle is lit on each night of the holiday, progressing to eight on the final night.
“While the miracle of the war seems huge,” Lepkiver said, “so is the miracle of oil, since it is about providing light. If you think about the thousands of candles that are being lighted tonight, this is as sweet today as it was then.”
He said then as today, the ceremony is about good prevailing over evil.
“No terrorist action is ever justified,” he said. “This is about good and evil, light and dark. We keep the light when we light candles.”
Rabbi Mordechai Kanelsky, however, said these candles have an even more significant meaning.
“When people come together to share this moment, tonight we light the second candle. It is a spiritual act,” he said. “Last night, we lit the first candle for God.”
But he said the second candle and those that follow are about something else, about being given the gift of one more day, and the ability to do one more good deed. He said this is more than just about eight days, but about a life of being given each new day and the opportunity to do one more good deed each day. He said this is not just one religion, but every major faith.
New hope for the Jewish community in Jersey City
This was something of a watershed moment for Jersey City as well.
Mayor Steven Fulop said that the leaders who came to this event represented the long Jewish tradition in Jersey City.
He said such event celebrated the resurgence of the Jewish community in Jersey City
“Like many people, many of the young moved out of the cities to raise families in the suburbs,” Fulop said. “But there is a resurgence of the Jewish community in Jersey City. New synagogues are opening, old ones are expanding. More Jews are choosing to raise their families here. This is a great victory, and celebration of Jewish coming back to Jersey City.”
This resurgence has a lot to do with young people moving back to places like Jersey City and Hoboken, part of the gentrification process. Hoboken, which gentrified first, saw an increase in population of Jewish families. Jersey City is seeing a similar rebirth. But unlike Hoboken, where traditional synagogues are centrally located, many of the younger Jews are opening and attending synagogs that are closer to transportation hubs.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.