In the Key of Hanukkah
December 8, 2023
By Alex Lazarus-Klein

A few weeks ago, I was asked by the website ritualwell.org to write a Hanukkah poem to represent the hardship the Jewish world has endured since October 7. How could I possibly do this? How could I take a holiday so full of life and light and love and reduce it into our current emotions? I thought about the way a small flame can light an entire room, about the millennia of prejudice and affliction our people have endured and survived, about the pain encompassed by Hanukkah in spite of its joy.

Here is what I wrote:
“Banish Darkness, Bring on the Light” (Hanukkah 5784)
Can a candle pierce darkness? Can it thaw a broken heart?
I rub my hands together like a match. This Hanukkah will be different.
I am not a Maccabee, but I am among their ranks. To advertise light how fanatical, how fantastical.
The hills of Judea howl with anger. My heart burns like the end of a match.
I am not warm yet but I am not cold either. I realize I’ve been writing in tears.
Stand over me like a Shamash. Bend your arms around me like a flame.
Tell me even amidst all this darkness we will find light.
As I count out the holes, I realize there are too many candies missing to fill a menorah.

Click here to view Rabbi Alex’s poem ritualwell.org

Hanukkah, it turns out, is not just about the light, but about the dark as well. More importantly, it’s about finding light within the dark.

Last week, I was on a Zoom call with a few dozen colleagues from around the country talking about the Matzav, the current situation in Israel. In addition to sharing our deep connection to our beloved country and the challenges we are currently facing in our communities, we were asked to share bright spots as well. As each colleague went in turn, they would inevitably spend a majority of their allotted two minutes on what was hard, their faces dour and stressed. And, then a transformation would occur in the final seconds as they finally got to what was good: walking side by side with their children at the DC March, organized interfaith efforts, money raised to support Israel in its time of need. Despite the struggles each of us has had endured, there were happy moments as well.

I thought of the Christmas music – much of it written by Jews – that pervades in so many of our communal spaces this time of year, much of it about quiet, happy moments with friends and family. How different it is from Hanukkah music, which is focused on fortitude and survival.

This is the message of our holiday of light, that bad times will come and we will overcome them together. As you look at your Spotify playlist for inspiration, I encourage you to take a listen to a few of my favorites: Erran Baron Cohen’s “Songs in the Key of Hanukkah,” the wonderful, modernized take on classic Hanukkah songs by the brother of the famous comedian Sasha Baron Cohen from 2010. And, my colleague and friend Cantor Arlene Frank’s “Hanukkah Nights” from 2019 featuring local artists. Build your own Hanukkah playlist, not to avoid the darkness, but to embrace it.

Hag Hanukkah Sameach and Shabbat Shalom.

Alex Lazarus-Klein is the Rabbi at Congregation Shir Shalom.

In the Key of Hanukkah - Jewish Thought of the week 2022