Ordinary light

Josephus did not call it Hannuka but rather the ‘Festival of Lights’

Painting by Pepe Fainberg (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
Painting by Pepe Fainberg
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
THE FIRST synagogue I ever visited was the Mikveh Israel synagogue in Curaçao, a Caribbean island off the Venezuelan coast. I’d been hired to research the 500-year history of the Sephardi Jews who ended up in Venezuela.
It was summertime. On the beach nearby the sand was warm and golden, echoing the outer walls of the synagogue. The sand on the floor inside was cool and white, as were the walls. The arched open windows were lidded with a cobalt-blue glass, the color the sky would become by the time service was over. Service times varied each week with the sunset. I, a recovering Catholic, had found this charming. At some point during the service, I suddenly felt I could breathe. I realized that I must have been holding my breath for the previous ten years.
My life until I left home for university had been circumscribed by light. At sunset I fed the poultry and the livestock before school. The south Texas rice harvest began after the sun had burned off the dew and ended at dusk. But since leaving the farm, light had become abstract to me. There was no longer anything in my life I could not do using the light of bulbs or candles; nothing for which I needed the sun. Part of the gift of this synagogue was the miracle of light, of ordinary light.
There is almost no mention of Hanukka in the Mishna, the Oral Torah, redacted between 180 and 220 CE by Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi. He redacted it because the Jews were being persecuted, and time was passing, and they were afraid that the details of the oral tradition of the Second Temple would be forgotten. During my years in Venezuela and Curaçao, I visited houses in which families lit candles to the Catholic saints every Friday night. I had originally been hired to research the first Bishop of Argentina, who had been born into a converso family. During the Inquisition, Portuguese converso families did not tell their children they were Jewish until bar mitzvah age; they were sent to Jesuit schools.
So much of the story of the Sephardi Jews of Curaçao resonates with Hanukka. Scholar Reuben Margolis suggests that the Mishna redactors left out mention of Hanukka because they feared reminding the Romans of the recent Bar Kokhba revolt. And for fear of antagonizing the monarchy, who instituted a “don’t ask, don’t tell” rule for the first forty years after the Spanish expulsion, the Jews of Portugal placed sand on the synagogue floors to muffle the sounds of their footsteps. Today the sand is a reminder.
The Protestant Netherlands were one of the few places in Europe, which provided Iberian Jews with refuge from the Inquisition, and the Sephardim began to move to Amsterdam after 1600, some two hundred years after their forced baptisms. Their Jewish identity was based on their two sets of names; also, they lit candles on Friday nights; their homes lacked statues of the saints; they did not mix meat and dairy.
From Amsterdam, Jews arrived in Curaçao by invitation of the Dutch West India Company in 1659. Among their privileges was religious freedom—the first granted Jews in North or Central America.
In my last years as a practicing Catholic, the image of the divinized human male body, hung prominently above the altar in churches, used to cause physical unease. I usually had to leave to avoid becoming ill. Questions of feminism aside, I was suspicious of miracles in institutional settings.
Josephus did not call it Hanukka but rather the “Festival of Lights.” This eight-day festival was initiated to celebrate the rededication of the temple by Yehuda Hamaccabi after Antiochus IV Epiphanes had profaned it. “They were so very glad at the revival of their customs, when, after a long time of intermission, they unexpectedly had regained the freedom of their worship.” Josephus didn’t call it a miracle, but rather “this liberty beyond our hopes.”
Tradition says a single consecrated jug of oil miraculously burned for eight days. But I don’t bother that much about the oil.
I don’t even need there to have been a guerilla victory led by Yehuda Hamaccabi. It could have been, as some scholars suggest, a successful petition that led to the resanctification of the Temple. It’s enough not to have to worship humans as gods. It’s enough to have religious freedom. It’s enough to have peace and not war. It’s enough to have light.
Nissim Gaon suggests the Mishna did not mention Hanukka because the celebration was so commonplace there was no need to explain it. Ordinary light is enough.
Marcela Sulak is a poet, translator and scholar. She directs the Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing at Bar-Ilan University. Her website is www.marcelasulak.com.