‘Song of praise’ ignites memories
I’m not a writer as such. Words for me wait to find expression through song, voice – physical, or poetic form. However, it’s interesting that when being asked to pen something, it focuses your thoughts in a different way to the embodied form.
As an actress and theatre maker, I work with my instinct. Always. Here I was, a very secular Jew, being asked to write a piece on Rosh Hashanah.
As I drove down Glenhove Road thinking about this, I immediately heard what I will refer to as the “prayer of praise” that was my dad’s favourite – and then mine.
I was immediately filled with a quiet joy as I remembered the enormous pride I felt when I saw my dad standing on the bimah. He always sang in the choir.
I was flooded with memories of the old Linksfield Synagogue where Dr Yageel was a formidable presence, and Rabbi Isaac Goss and later Rabbi Avigdor Bokov presided.
This was the synagogue of my youth, and some of my adulthood. I started to cry as that melody hit me in the gut. My tears were of deep belonging, and longing for that belonging.
I saw myself as a young kid, in my new Rosh Hashanah clothes that were at times sewn by my mom, and later, when my parents could afford more, were bought from a boutique in Norwood. The name escapes me, but it was a Rosh Hashanah ritual to come to shul in our brand-new clothes for a grand new year.
The shul was always packed. You couldn’t find a seat. My sisters and cousins played outside with our “shul friends”, and then looked forward to a gathering large and loud at a relative’s home. It was the mid-1980s. Before our vast family scattered across the globe.
In the late 1990s, I went to live in New York City. During my time there, I searched for the synagogue of my childhood. It was a long search. Sometimes it was easier to stay home on the high holy days, and not go to shul at all, as the feeling of dislocation, of not belonging, was so strong.
One year on Rosh Hashanah, my friend, Darrill, and I stumbled upon a shul on the Upper West Side. It had a similar feel to Linksfield even though it was conservative. You didn’t have to pay to enter, which was welcoming too. It had a gorgeous choir led by a magnificent female chazan. We sat together – male and female – which felt a little strange yet comforting. And then they sang that “song of praise” with that same melody, and for a brief few moments, I belonged in a country that wasn’t my home.
I now reside in Johannesburg. My parents and sisters live in America. I have spent many a Rosh Hashanah there, wanting to be with my immediate family, but also escaping the loss of the huge extended family that once lived here.
These times are triggers of longing for what once was, but also times of deep gratitude for what is.
My dad is in the winter of his life now. We have had many “last” Rosh Hashanahs with him. With COVID-19 and travel restrictions, this year we’ll be celebrating on different continents.
I will hold my dad in my heart, and in my being, as I hear the “prayer of praise” which is actually the mourner’s kaddish, but on Rosh Hashanah and at the end of the Ne’ilah service on Yom Kippur, it’s sung with buoyancy, strength, and great optimism.
- Gina Shmukler is an actress, director, and theatre maker.
Eli Kay was a modern-day Maccabee
Eliyahu David Kay is a hero of the Jewish people. He was murdered in Jerusalem this week for only one reason: being a Jew. He was a proud Jew and a committed Zionist. He was a chayal boded (lone soldier). He came to Israel on his own, served in the Israel Defense Forces, and then began to make his life in Israel. His brothers, too, served as lone soldiers.
Eli was born to parents who live these ideals deeply, and who instilled them in their children. And he comes from a community in which the flame of Zionism burns brightly – and has done for generations.
Through the life he lived, Eli reminded us all of the original Zionist ideals and the incredible self-sacrifice of the early pioneers, many of whom gave their lives to protect and preserve the dream of a Jewish state.
Where does such idealism originate? It didn’t begin in Basel in 1897 but thousands of years before, at the very onset of Jewish history. In the famous opening words of parshat Lech Lecha, G-d tells Abraham, the founder of the Jewish people, “Go – from your country, from your birthplace, from your father’s home – to the land I will show you.”
Abraham was called to leave the comfort and familiarity of the home he grew up in; to leave everything behind and journey to the land of Israel to fulfil his G-d-given role in Jewish history and destiny. Zionism begins right there, rooted in this original call from G-d; in our sense of mission and our very identity as a nation.
Eli Kay lived this Zionism, a Zionism rooted in the divine ideals of our people, a Zionism that transcends mere Jewish nationalism and speaks to something far deeper. The same idealism, the same noble-minded Zionism, of the founding father and mother of the Jewish people, Abraham and Sarah.
It’s the golden thread that runs throughout Jewish history, that connects one family of brave, selfless heroes to another. We are about to celebrate Chanukah, when we remember how Matityahu and his brothers, known as the Maccabees, a family of Torah scholars from a tribe of priests, single-handedly defeated the mighty Greek empire, reclaiming the land of Israel.
But this was more than a military victory. The Beit HaMikdash in Jerusalem had been overrun by the Greek army and converted into a shrine for idol worship. And the Greeks had imposed not just political dominion over the Jewish people, but cultural and ideological hegemony too. In seeking to impose Hellenistic values and philosophy and to supplant Torah values and a Jewish way of life, the Greeks outlawed the performance of many crucial mitzvot, including Shabbat and circumcision. It was an attempt to subvert the entire Jewish value system.
Unlike the Romans who came after the Greeks, and who actually burnt the Temple to the ground, the Greeks were more intent on redirecting the Temple towards their own ideology and beliefs. They brought idols into its sacred precinct, and used the Temple and its facilities for pagan worship.
This wasn’t a fight for physical survival or a simple conflict over territory and resources. The Maccabees weren’t just political freedom fighters. This was a struggle for spiritual values and ideals.
That’s why our sages focused on the menorah and the miracle of the oil as the symbol of Chanukah rather than the miraculous military battle. The menorah – the rededication of the Temple to its holy service, the spiritual values and practices of the Jewish people, the light of Torah – is what the Maccabees were fighting for.
It’s deeply significant that the modern state of Israel chose the menorah as its official symbol. It reminds us that to be a Jew and to be a Zionist isn’t a simple nationalistic identity; that our connection to the land of Israel and to our people is rooted in our values and in our Torah.
The senseless murder of Eli Kay makes this clear. The cold-blooded gunning down of a tour guide doesn’t fit into a political or nationalistic narrative. Our struggle with those who would banish us from our land isn’t, in essence, a territorial battle but one of values. If this were a mere political dispute over borders, the conflict would have been resolved long ago.
Eli was murdered in the Old City of Jerusalem, on the way to daven at the Kotel, metres away from the very place the Maccabees entered the Temple. And with their same heroic spirit and clarity of vision and values, Eli sacrificed his life for the same cause.
May the memory of Eliyahu David ben Avraham Chaim be a blessing.
Oily clash of civilisations in one lamp
Most of us use candles for lighting the chanukiah, but our sages lauded the use of olive oil. The reasons for this are more revealing than you might have imagined. The oil used for salad dressing and good cooking turns out to be the focal point of the clash between ancient Greece and the Jewish people.
As you know, on Chanukah we celebrate the victory of our ancestors against foreign invaders. In 165 BCE, after three years of hostilities, the Jews, led by Judah Maccabee, finally drove out from Jerusalem the Greek-speaking occupying forces, led by the Selucid king, Antiochus Epiphanes.
But this wasn’t just a military victory of Israel’s Jews over the Greco-Syrians, it was also a cultural victory of Judaism over Hellenisation — the assimilation of Jews into ancient Greek culture.
Each year, we light the eight-branched chanukiah to remind us of the miraculous story of the small jar of unsullied olive oil that our ancestors discovered and used to rededicate the menorah in the ransacked Temple. A miracle occurred, and the menorah’s lights continued to burn for eight days until more pure oil could be produced.
In the Talmud, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi teaches that though any kind of oil is acceptable to use for the chanukiah lights, olive oil is most preferred (Shabbat 23a). Another scholar, Rabbah bar Nachmani, suggested that sesame oil might be better as its light is longer-lasting, but then he yields to Rabbi Yeshoshua because, he says, olive oil “produces a clearer light”.
Now that’s a surprise. Surely longer-lasting sesame oil would better remind us of the long-lasting little jug of oil? A second surprise is that no one cares to mention that it had always been olive oil that was used to light the actual menorah. As the Torah says, “Now you shall command the children of Israel that they bring you pure olive oil, pressed for illumination, to light the menorah continually.” (Exodus 27:20). Instead, what matters here seems to be the special clear light that’s unique to olive oil. What’s going on?
The continuation of the Talmud here is even more surprising. The discussion of Chanukah is interrupted so that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi can introduce another issue. He says that all oils are also fit for the production of the ink used to write our sacred scrolls, such as a Sefer Torah, but that, again, olive oil is most preferred.
As well as binding agents, this indelible black ink was produced by collecting the soot from the light of an olive oil lamp dissolved in yet more olive oil. So, although the ink for a modern Sefer Torah is now produced from alternative ingredients, the ideal Sefer Torah, as described by our Talmudic sages, clearly involved the copious use of olive oil to write every single letter. So it must be that this type of oil has some central importance to Jewish religious culture.
It turns out that olive oil was essential to Greek culture too. Athens, the ancient capital of Greece, took its name from Athena, the goddess of wisdom, because she introduced them to the olive tree.
The most common coin in ancient Greece depicted Athena on one side, wearing an olive wreath on her helmet, and an olive branch and owl (for wisdom) on the other. Even today, the Greek one euro coin has Athena and the olive branch on one side.
Olive oil is a staple of the Greek diet, and it has been an international supplier of this precious liquid for more than four millennia. Olive groves were considered sacred in ancient Greece, and Aristotle wrote that the olive tree was state-protected.
For more than a thousand years, the winners of the Olympic Games (which began in Olympia in 776 BCE) were crowned with a wreath made from an olive branch, and their reward was a lifetime’s supply of olive oil.
It’s no wonder then that olive oil-based lights became the symbol of Chanukah. That pure light represents the clash of civilisations between Greece and Israel. Essentially, the light symbolises wisdom. Its clarity meant you could read and study by it after dark, late into the night. And, just as gaining wisdom requires a huge investment of effort and time, so similarly, it takes 6kg of olives to produce just one litre of olive oil. So, olive oil represents the pursuit and attainment of wisdom for both cultures.
In fact, our sages had a deep respect for ancient Greek thought. Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and the Chochmei Atunah (the sages of Athens) are all given some recognition in rabbinic literature, and there are hundreds of Greek words in the Talmud. The rabbis sensed that the Greeks, like them, took life seriously and wanted to understand the nature of this world as well as humanity’s role in it.
But Greek thought had a dark side too because it over-emphasised physical beauty both in nature and in the human body. It understood the great virtues — glory, wisdom, love, etc —as manifestations of multiple gods rather than coming from one creator. Many Jews were seduced by this, and a large part of the Chanukah story was the intra-communal conflict between loyal and Hellenised Jews. That was a failure of our people which we must never allow to be repeated.
Today, we can still appreciate the best of Western philosophy, an approach which is rooted in ancient Greek wisdom. Crucially, though, Chanukah must remind us to be ever dedicated to our own particular faith, a faith that gave us G-dly wisdom to live by.
The rabbis of the Talmud valued both Chochmah (wisdom from great minds) and Torah (wisdom from G-d). The precious lights of your chanukiah symbolise enlightenment, both worldly and divine. Rather than clashing, these can be unified in order to live a most meaningful life and “see the light”. May you have an enlightening Chanukah.
- Rabbi Dr Raphael Zarum is dean of the London School of Jewish Studies.
Finding your why, not your what
Have you ever heard of Samuel Pierpont Langley? I hadn’t before listening to author and organisational consultant Simon Sinek talk about “How great leaders inspire action”.
In the early 20th century, Samuel Pierpont Langley was on the path to be the first person to invent a flying machine. He had every tool at his disposal – money, support, a Harvard education, and great market conditions. The New York Times followed him around everywhere and people were rooting for Langley. So why haven’t I heard of Samuel Pierpont Langley?
A few hundred miles away in Dayton, Ohio, Orville and Wilbur Wright had none of what we consider to be the “recipe for success”. They had no money. Not a single person on the Wright brothers’ team had a college education, including Orville and Wilbur. The New York Times didn’t follow them around.
So why did they succeed? Sinek suggests that the recipe for success is leading from the why. Most people and most organisations begin with what. They know what they want to do – what their product is and what they are doing. Most know how they will do it – what the strategy and plan is to achieve the what. But very few people know why they do what they do. As Sinek suggests, we should strive to “to answer why: what’s your purpose? What’s your cause? What’s your belief? Why do you get out of bed?”
According to Sinek, this is the reason why Orville and Wilbur were successful. Langley was in pursuit of a result: being rich and famous. The Wright brothers were driven by a cause, by a purpose, by a belief. And on 17 December 1903, the Wright brothers took flight.
I was thinking about the ethic of leading from why as I thought of the Chanukah story. Yehuda Hamaccabee is actually remembered much more for his what. The First Book of Maccabees praises Yehuda’s valour and military talent, suggesting that these qualities made him a natural choice. We remember that he led a small army. As we recall in Al HaNisim in our liturgy:
מָסַרְתָּ גִבּורִים בְּיַד חַלָּשִׁים וְרַבִּים בְּיַד מְעַטִּים (You delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few.)
He led the Jewish people to reclaim and rededicate the temple. But what we don’t talk about as much is that his reign of leadership was short lived. The priesthood in the aftermath of the Maccabean victory was corrupt and a puppet of the non-Jewish king.
Within two years, Judah the Maccabee was dead and many of his men had been executed. This is the likely reason why chazal were resistant to creating a tractate of Talmud dedicated to Chanukah. I know very little about his why.
Our celebration of Chanukah and the way in which we ritualise it has little to do with Yehuda Hamaccabee’s military victory. If it did, perhaps we would celebrate Chanukah by dressing up as soldiers, with swords and shields, and by re-enacting the victory.
Instead, we celebrate by lighting candles to commemorate the story of the oil. The miracle of one pach, one jar of shemen that lasted for eight days. This is the why of Chanukah.
In fact, the Gemara (Shabbat 21b) asks, “Mai Chanukah?” (What is Chanukah?) This is actually a surprising question. Nowhere else does the Gemara ask what. “Mai Pesach? Mai Sukkot?”
What’s more, people had already been celebrating Chanukah for hundreds of years by the time this question was asked. The question of the Gemara becomes even stranger once you realise that the Gemara has already discussed many details of the holiday. We have already learned about the basic mitzvah of lighting, the method of lighting, and the debate between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai as to whether we begin with eight candles and count down, or one and count up. And then suddenly, the Gemara asks, “Mai Chanukah?”
The question cannot be “What is Chanukah”, but why. Why do we celebrate? Rashi reformulates “Mai Chanukah”, and explains, “Al eyzeh nes? (What’s the underlying miracle?) Why did the rabbis establish Chanukah as a holiday?”
The Gemara answers that we celebrate Chanukah because they found “but one cruse of oil that was set in place with the seal of the high priest, but there was in it only [enough] to light a single day. A miracle was done with it, and they lit from it for eight days.”
When we celebrate Chanukah, we are celebrating the courage and faith that the people had in searching for the one jar, and then against all odds, in lighting the menorah.
This is the why of the holiday. It’s an opportunity to reflect on how you want to be remembered and, therefore, how you will live your life. As Sinek points out, Martin Luther King Jr inspired thousands of followers not by his what, but his why. He gave the “I have a dream” speech, not the “I have a plan” speech.
So on this Chanukah, let’s get back to your why. Find your inner flame, and let it dance boldly, lighting up our world. This is a world that needs all your light.
- Rabba Sara Hurwitz, the co-founder and president of Maharat, the first institution to ordain Orthodox women as clergy, also serves on the rabbinic staff at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in New York City.
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