Lit From Within

IT WAS TOUCHING, HUMOROUS, AND A SIGN of the changing times in our city. Newly elected city council member Jared Zaifman, in a reflection of his Jewish faith, brought in latkes for his counterparts as a celebration of Hanukkah. Zaifman’s reasoning was simple and profound at the same time:

I brought latkes for council and staff to have because very simply, this is a food that I indulge in over this time of the year, and I wanted to share that hospitality and treat with them.  I am very proud of my heritage and traditions, and I think being able to share that and give people a better understanding of my background and practices goes a long way in allowing us a better understanding of one another. I think also like myself, many members on council love the diversity we have in London, and we all want to learn more about that diversity, and sometimes the most fun and enjoyable way to do that, is through food!

The previous evening, Adam Caplan spoke of his Jewish heritage and the importance of Hanukkah during a Christmas community reading celebration at the Grand Theatre.

All of this is important because these young leaders were reminding us that light during the holiday season is about much more than mere celebration. For those celebrating Hanukkah it reflects the miracle of survival and enlightenment, of creating light in a time of darkness. It isn’t merely about celebrating what one has, but recapturing what was lost. For any community seeking to find a future, the lessons of Hanukkah, regardless of one’s background, teach us that we must fight for community or we simply won’t have one to celebrate.

You can read about the history of this great tradition here, but its lessons have endured and continue to redefine what it means for us to live in community. It reminds us that to live together involves dedicated effort and that it is often a hard thing to fight for our ideals. The ancient Jews who watched their Temple desecrated and their community diminished by outside forces learned that falling back on tradition alone would not overcome the darkness they faced. And so they fought a battle that looked to the outside world as the weak taking on the strong. But what everyone overlooked was that this was their community and it was all they had. And so they fought for the life they wanted in order to preserve the history they had known. They recaptured and re-consecrated the most vital building in their community, in the process becoming better prepared for their future simply because they battled for it. A community dedicated to one another is never powerless. Sometimes the only way ahead is the hard way.

Hanukkah is called the “Festival of Lights” for a reason. When they went about to rededicate their temple, the ancient Jews discovered there wasn’t enough oil in their lamp to burn for more than a day. Yet tradition says it burned for eight days in all, effectively reminding the community that those who labour for its future have more resources than they realize. They believed it was a miracle and that God was behind it, but the lessons learned during that troubling time were ultimately about one essential truth: without light, only darkness is left and the sense of community declines. And a second great lesson emerged, namely that it is inward beauty and light that is ultimately responsible for overcoming the darkness. The Jews were willing to fight and in that resolve their inner enlightenment overcame the outward darkness.

And from that historic moment evolved the tradition of the exchanging of gifts. Perhaps unlike Christmas, where shopping and giving can often be opulent, Hanukkah is about the giving of small gifts as a kind of humble way of acknowledging a festival that was a costly thing to bring about. Lives had been lost, a community had been set back on its heels, and the revitalization of the people hadn’t come through a credit card but the steep cost of struggling together in order to endure.

It has been said that existence isn’t something to be endured but to be lived. That is merely the view of someone who has forgotten the past. To the Jewish people, life is one long story, millennia old, and capable of still producing sadness intermixed with joy. For them living is testifying to the miracle of surviving and growing in collective goodness and justice. It is not about some man in a red suit with eight shiny reindeer, but about a menorah with nine lit candles that brings light at a price.

What Jared Zaifman provided in his gift of latkes and Adam Caplan prompted in his gift of traditional storytelling was a timely reminder that a worthy community doesn’t just switch on some lights, but fights for the enlightenment of all people, regardless of the cost. We all need to thank them for the lesson and their willingness to tell it in a troubled age. Happy Hanukkah.