Finding the Chanuka Spirit in the Granite State

The lights of the menorah help cement and share identity

When you’re 6 years old and Jewish in Minnesota, you start “negotiating your identity” long before you know what any of those words mean — and you’re going to need some serious tools for the task. Mrs. Nussbaum made sure I had one: a Judah Maccabee wood-spoon puppet.

Judah Maccabee is, for a 6-year-old, the hero in the story of Chanuka. He led a Jewish army to drive the forces of Antiochus (Jewish kids have to learn some pretty complicated bad-guy names) out of Jerusalem. Antiochus had taken over the Holy Temple and installed an idol. No Judah — no miracle of a small cruse of olive oil keeping sacred lamps alight for eight days.

Understand that young Jewish kids outside of New York City or Jerusalem are swimming upstream, and not just in the Christmas season. For example, Mrs. Nussbaum had us make a lot of things. For Pesach (Passover), we cut out and colored pictures of the Nile River, somehow indicating that Jewish baby boys were being thrown there to die. Even though even today I sometimes misspell “pharaoh,” we could say it just fine. We were years away from learning about Hitler.

Mrs. Nussbaum liked puppets. When we were going to act out the story of Abraham and Isaac, I, future rabbi, asked to be God. She hesitated for a long second and then said yes, but I would have to be under a table when we performed. As Robin Williams might have said, “Phenomenal cosmic powers … itty bitty living space!” Who cares? For a week at home, I preened, I was God. I came in with the paper-bag God puppet I made — an old man with a beard. Even under the table, that was a good deal.

But here’s the point: Playing God was fantasy. Babies in the Nile was either a horror story or a fairy tale. The Judah Maccabee wooden-spoon felt puppet was the sweet spot — the genius of Mrs. Nussbaum.

Wood-spoon Judah had a sword, but I don’t remember using it to slaughter or even beat off any enemies when we played with it. No, Judah’s shield was more important than his sword; that’s where the Jewish star was. Judah-spoon had a sort of calm face. The colors I chose for him vaguely suggested the uniform of the Minnesota Vikings.

In other words, Judah was a hero, he was a Jew, he was proud and forceful, but at home in his surroundings. Mrs. Nussbaum was brilliant. Isn’t this exactly what you would want a 6-year-old Jewish child to feel like?

Rabbi Jonathan Spira-Savett of Temple Beth Abraham in Nashua. He holds the menorah that he purchased as a college student in Jerusalem.
Photo by Lela Spira-Savett

I think it worked. When I was in high school, the Israeli cultural emissary in town invited some teens to welcome a torch from Israel at the airport. It had been lit, we were told, in Modi’in, Judah Maccabee’s hometown in Israel. I was interviewed for the local TV news. I talked about Chanuka as the holiday of “the few defeating the many.”

I felt lucky to be part of “the few.” To have a story to tell about standing up for ourselves with pride, being right and surviving. I was lucky that there were enough of us (around 10 in my high school class) that we were few but not isolated. That’s the big difference between small Jewish Minnesota and even smaller Jewish New Hampshire. I had plenty of friends who accepted me for being Jewish.

At some point, you have to graduate from the Judah Maccabee wood spoon. I spent my third year of college in Jerusalem. Late that spring, I decided I needed to bring home my own menorah — a candle-holder for the eight candles of Chanuka, along with the special helper-candle that lights the others but is distinct from them.

I’m not a shopper by nature (I have to force myself into stores), but after breakfast one day, I headed out from campus toward the center of town. I started on Ben Yehuda Street, where American students and tourists congregate for pizza, falafel, T-shirts and souvenirs. I went into every gift shop on the pedestrian malls and its side streets. The menorahs all looked like the standard-issue ones everyone had growing up — the menorah of the Jews who are proud enough to light it, but not to put it in their window for others to see, as the teachings of Chanuka specify.

I had some lunch and walked uphill toward Me’ah She’arim. It’s a neighborhood meant to reproduce the insular, religious environment of late medieval, Eastern European Jews. It literally has a wall around it. I figured I would find something authentic there. Again I walked into every shop. The menorahs were serviceable but austere.

I spent five or six hours walking Jerusalem, and, if I passed a souvenir shop, a gift shop, or an artist with even a single religious image in the window, I went in. Nothing spoke to me. Shopped out, I doubled back to Jaffa Road, another main drag. That’s where I found my menorah.

The shop itself was Mrs. Nussbaum’s sweet spot all over again. It was literally halfway between the tourist traps of Ben Yehuda Street and the walls of the Old City. The menorah was artistic and modern, but also traditional with its gold paint and fierce with its black background. It had more curves than the straight and angular menorahs of my youth. Its candles are placed in circles that suggest an ancient oil lamp. This was the menorah for my adulthood. Proud, forceful, at home in modern surroundings.

It’s fashionable among Jews to say that Chanuka isn’t important, that it’s just there so American Jewish children won’t feel bad around Christmas, but I don’t agree. Chanuka is the story of the modern Jews of the second century B.C.E. who were awed by Greek culture and governed by Hellenistic empires, trying to work out their exact relationship to it all. They fought a tyrant; they also translated the Torah into Greek.

Chanuka is about us, the Jews of New Hampshire. We each have to make our Judah Maccabee spoons, and find the perfect menorah to light.

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