My mom always made a big deal about Chanukah, and she instilled in our family a love for the holiday, too.
I know, I know. Chanukah's considered a "minor" holiday on the Jewish calendar, just trying to keep up with the commercialism of a Christmas culture that has us hearing the Mariah Carey Christmas song in our sleep for two months straight.
But in our house, Chanukah--which starts this Sunday night, Dec. 6--was always a major holiday. We'd deck the place out in blue, gold, and silver metallic Chanukah décor worn from years of usage. The smell of frying latkes would waft through the house, we'd play dreidel for pennies, and exchange eight token gifts like Huey Lewis cassettes and Hypercolor T-shirts--ah the 1980s.
But it wasn't about the gifts.
The centerpiece of the holiday in my home was lighting the Chanukiah (menorah). No matter what each family member was doing on those eight nights, we'd drop everything to go light the candles together.
I loved the special blessing we sing, and the smell of the Chanukah candles—a different tune and aroma than at our weekly Shabbat celebrations. I loved the glow of the lights in the window that passersby would see. And I loved to watch the colored wax melt down into abstract art until the final cinder would burn out, all in a matter of minutes.
We loved Chanukah so much that my mother even wrote a song about it, dedicated to my sister and me, called "The Maydel with the Dreidel." I've been singing that song eight nights a year since I was barely old enough to talk.
What resonates for us is that Chanukah celebrates not losing our Judaism to the larger culture--then and now. We're told that back in the days of the Maccabees, the oil lasted eight nights. And all these years later, through all the darkness—the peril, persecution, and turmoil—the Jewish people are still burning bright.
When we watch the news today, it's hard not to be overwhelmed by the poison: the evil of ISIS, violence in Israel and all over the world, and reports of anti-Semitism abroad and on our own college campuses.
Yet, we've never let the dark extinguish the light, and we never will. In fact, our light--the light of the Jewish people--shines brighter than ever. That's the real miracle of Chanukah.
"The miracle," my mom would tell my sister and me growing up, "is you."
The miracle is every Jewish child. The miracle is all of us, the Jewish people, who endure and glow.
The miracle is all around us.
The miracle is in the handwritten notes tucked inside the Kotel (Western Wall).
The miracle is in the pages of the hundreds of thousands of books Chicago's PJ Library has mailed to homes of Jewish children for the last six years.
The miracle is the scientific and technological innovations that are coming out of Israel all the time.
The miracle is the songs sung around a bonfire at Jewish camps every summer.
The miracle is on the faces of the little kids who get up on the bimah (pulpit) and sing Adon Olam at synagogue every Shabbat.
The miracle is in the pantries of The ARK that feed people in need.
The miracle is at Independence Hall in Tel Aviv, where Israel first became a Jewish state, where the last time I was in Israel, I sang "Hatikvah" with 170 Jewish peers from around North America.
The miracle is in the hands that bless our daughters and sons on Friday nights.
The miracle is the joy of dancing the hora at a Jewish wedding.
The miracle will be the 2,000 young Chicago Jews who will give together and laugh together at the YLD Big Event Fundraiser later this month, as we have for the last eight years.
The miracle is all of us--the Jewish people. Am Yisrael Chai!
May your Chanukah be filled with peace, joy, and light.