As a child, I didn’t love Hanukkah.
Don’t get me wrong: The candles, presents (pajamas and pencils were standards), songs, and fried foods all made me generally very excited to be a Jew. And I was happy for any indications around Christmastime that Judaism was yummy and fun, especially since every person I met from Halloween through New Year’s seemed to be not Jewish and wanted to wish me a “Merry Christmas” and ask what I wanted from Santa.
So why didn’t I love Hanukkah?
Well, I grew up in a home that straddled the Orthodoxy of my grandparents’ youth and the membership we held to a Reform synagogue, so things were sometimes a little mixed up. I only got the most basic explanation of Hanukkah: how brave Judah Maccabee helped save the Jews.
Hanukkah presented in this way lacked the “meat” of the preferred Jewish holiday of my youth, Passover. Passover entailed elaborate preparing, two nights of a fancy meal in our home where I got to sip Manishewitz, and eight days of restricted eating that somehow made me feel deeply connected to being Jewish. Hanukkah by comparison seemed a bit…weak. I felt no real connection to the spiritual and religious parts of me that Passover stirred up.
Now that I am older, and now that I have become more immersed in Judaism and Jewish learning, I can honestly say that I love Hanukkah. I have had my eyes opened to the deeper historical conflict and tension surrounding the story of the Maccabees, and I have even studied the political issues that were in the mix when Matisyahu and Judah rose up to lead the Jews to victory.
The phrase “the many were delivered into the hands of the few” these days gives me chills, as I picture our brave ancestors fighting to practice their religion as Hellenism threatened to end all that we hold dear as Jews. And the larger but more serious issues of the freedom to be Jews, faith in G-d, and being open to the possibility of miracles in the modern age do not take away from the joy I still feel when I eat fried foods, spin a dreidel, or open a package of yellow mesh-enclosed chocolate gelt.
The path I have taken towards observant Judaism has truly helped me become the Jew that I believe I was destined to be, and it has given me back what history tried to rob us of.
For me, the investment in Jewish learning has transformed Hanukkah from a holiday that did not quite have “enough” for me into a holiday that has served as a gateway to all of the other meaningful practices that I have taken on, including the eventual observance and passion for all of the holidays I never even knew much about to begin with, like Shavuot, Sukkot, and even Tisha B’Av. And to think this all started with wanting more from Hanukkah!
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik greeted my Rabbi and his fellow students one day in University by banging on the podium, declaring loudly, “Students! I have witnessed a miracle today!” The students fell silent. He continued gently, “I saw the sun come up today.”
Enjoy the miracles of this season, whether it is the recognition of the historical miracle of Hanukkah or the greatest miracle of all: that we are constantly growing and learning, and that we are truly blessed with the possibility for seeing miracles every day if we just open our eyes and allow them to be witnessed.
This article is also featured in Jewish Treats Complete Guide to Chanukah! Download your free copy here: http://bit.ly/JTBook