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Lights, tradition, connection

Every winter, when we light Chanukah candles, my family has a tradition of singing every Chanukah song that we can remember. This includes all the tunes that our kids sang as kindergarteners in Israel, all the ones I hear annually flowing out from every corner of our Bialik buildings, and any other songs we can think of in Hebrew and in English. We make a game of it, seeing how many we can remember. It’s fun, and it keeps us together as a family, standing in front of the lights for a while, sharing in their beauty. 

Surveys indicate that, for so many of us, the lighting of the Chanukiah is one of the most commonly observed and impactful Jewish experiences we have. Considering why that is the case, I am brought back to the lyrics of one of those songs we sing each year: 

כל אחד הוא אור קטן, וכולנו אור איתן

 Each person is a small light, and together we are an eternal light

The idea that we — all Jews — come together to create something larger than ourselves is a powerful image. Those words conjure in my mind scenes of people lighting candles in their homes the world over — my friends and relatives here in Canada and in the US, UK and Israel, to be sure. But I also imagine families that I’ve never met, all over the globe, on every continent (save Antarctica?), in virtually every country, all standing in front of their Chanukiyot, reciting the blessings, spinning dreidels and singing some of the same songs that we love so much. 

But more than connecting Jews the world over, that “eternal light” reaches beyond the here and now, back into our collective history. I remember the excitement my children felt when we lit Chanukah candles when they were young and that same wonder I felt when I stood next to my parents when I was a child. I picture my grandparents lighting those candles with their families as new immigrants to America and contemporaries doing the same in their new homes in Palestine. I imagine Jews escaping persecution throughout history, be it the Holocaust or the Inquisition, surreptitiously marking the holiday with makeshift Chanukiyot. The display of Chanukiyot in the Israel Museum tells us that candles have been lit each winter throughout the middle ages all over the Diaspora. In fact, the tradition goes all the way back to the ancient rabbis, Hillel and Shamai, arguing about how many candles to light each night!

So as we all gather in our homes to mark the holiday this year, consider the small light in each of us and the solitary Chanukiya that we kindle. But as you sing those familiar blessings and songs, I also invite you to join me in calling to mind the connections to our people all over the world and our ancestors going back dozens of generations. We really are an אור איתן — an eternal light.

Wishing you all a חג אורים שמח — a joyous festival of lights. Happy Chanukah!

Benjy Cohen

Head of School