By Emily Herzlin
In this special Hanukkah edition, I’m delighted to share this short piece from my friend and colleague, Emily Herzlin, founder of Mindful Astoria. Emily is a writer and mindfulness teacher at Weill-Cornell Medicine, and is writing a book on the connections between Jewish traditions and mindfulness. Enjoy. —Dan Cayer
Originally published on Kveller.
Ki imcha m’kor chayyim, b’orcha nirei or
For with You is the source of life, in Your light we see light
When I was a child, I loved going with my family to the special Shabbat-Hanukkah service at our synagogue. All the families would line up their menorahs on a long table in the sanctuary in front of the bimah (platform) and light their candles. With the sanctuary lights dimmed, the lights from the menorahs looked like a small glimmering city. The service ended once all the candles had burned down, which generally was about the length of a typical Reform family service, forty-five minutes to an hour.
But one year, my parents accidentally brought long-lasting candles to the service, the no-drip kind that burn for hours. I’ll never forget the sight of all the other candles having long melted away, our menorah with its candles not even half way down, and all the families waiting to charge down to the banquet hall for donuts and coffee, glaring at the menorah with the lights that just would not go out. My parents’ disastrous misjudgment mortified me, and I pretended I did not know them.
Looking back, this image has a different resonance for me now.
Most people are familiar with the miracle of Hanukkah, which doesn’t appear in the Torah but in later writings: the Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed, and there was only enough oil to light the ner tamid (the eternal flame) for one day, but the oil lasted eight days until the
Maccabees procured more oil. That is why we light the menorah and enjoy its radiance for eight days, that’s why we eat things fried in oil like latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (jelly donuts).
But the full legend of Hanukkah, which I learned when I was older, tells of the Syrian King Antiochus sending his soldiers to Jerusalem to take over the Temple and dedicate it to Zeus. Antiochus made it illegal to be Jewish. Antiochus ordered the Jews to convert and assimilate to the dominant culture, or they would be killed. A small group of Jewish rebels, the Maccabees, rose up against Antiochus, took back the Temple, and the Jewish people were able to worship freely once again.
I cannot hear the story of Hanukkah today without thinking of the times we are living in now. Our government and its policies, our culture, tells so many groups of marginalized people that they cannot be who they are, who they are is not okay, not valid, not legal. As a Jewish person living under a Trump presidency, I wanted to hide — wear my beloved sh’ma (one of the central Hebrew prayers) necklace tucked inside my shirt, don’t talk too loudly about Jewish topics in public, look into moving to Canada (good thing I was about to marry a Canadian anyway, how lucky was that?) But then one day I saw photos of my rabbi being arrested at a protest, wearing her colorful tallit (prayer shawl), arms in plastic ties, with such a defiant, triumphant smile on her face as they escorted her into the police van and I felt a surge of energy, inspiration, and hope. Her light gave me light. I started wearing my sh’ma necklace outside my shirt, started talking to more people about my Jewish practice, began studying Hebrew and leading parts of prayer services for my Jewish community, and attended Jewish events that took place in outdoor, public spaces. Her bravery, and the bravery of many others — my friend who is trans and is raising funds online for her surgery, the artist in my neighborhood who writes openly about her relationship to mental illness, a college friend who lost his mother recently who shares about his journey with grief without trying to hide it — gives me the courage to connect more fully with all the parts of myself.
In the story of Hanukkah, the real miracle wasn’t that the oil lasted for eight days. That part of the legend was written even later than the story of the Jewish uprising. The miracle was the bravery of the people who stood up to the aggression and judgment of their oppressors. It would be so much easier to run away, to hide, to avoid, to decide it’s all too hard and just go bingewatch The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (okay, I’m also doing that, they’re not mutually exclusive). But those who bravely shine their light make it possible for others to access their own.
The word Hanukkah means Dedication, referring to the re-dedication of the Temple to its original intention. This year as I light the candles on the menorah, I will re-dedicate myself — to the values I care about, to the qualities that make me who I am, to my wisdom and my suffering, to living in my body. I will dedicate myself to inhabiting my aliveness as fully as possible, as an offering towards others who also struggle to be who they are.
Whatever your holiday traditions, whether you celebrate holidays this time of year or not, I invite you to take a few moments right now to pause in whatever you are doing. Close or rest your eyes, take a few deep, centering breaths, and then ask yourself:
How do I want to dedicate myself at this time? How can I be more fully myself? How can I offer my unique gifts for the benefit of others who struggle as I do, for the repair of the world?
Give yourself a couple of minutes, see what comes up, and notice where in your body you feel the energy of this response. Then when you’re ready, open your eyes, and write a few key words down somewhere where you will encounter them often, where they won’t be so easy to forget.
Here is my Hanukkah blessing for all of us: Go ahead, you brave, wonderful candles. Shine your light. Shine brighter and longer than is convenient for other people, for our society, for whomever. Keep on going. Keep on being you. Keep on glowing your wisdom and compassion. In your light, we see light.
Emily Herzlin is a Certified MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction) Teacher, and trained in MBSR at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. She works as a Mind-Body Instructor at Weill Cornell Medicine where she teaches meditation to patients, staff, and caregivers. She is on the teacher training faculty at the Interdependence Project, leads meditation for the Jewish spiritual community Malkhut in Queens, and is the founder and guiding teacher at Mindful Astoria, a meditation community in Astoria. She holds an MFA in Nonfiction from Columbia University.