Home-made miracles of Hanukka

A former prisoner of Zion reflects on the holiday, past and present.

Yosef Begun (photo credit: Courtesy)
Yosef Begun
(photo credit: Courtesy)
I remember well my first Hanukka in Israel 20 years ago. In Jerusalem's Zion Square, hundreds gathered for the kindling of the first light of the holiday. A grand 10-meter-high Hanukka menora was erected. Hanukka, the Festival of Lights, is celebrated in honor of the miracle of the heroic Maccabees' victory of the few and the weak over the strong and the many, which saved our people. The Jewish victory 22 centuries ago is paralleled by the IDF victories of our time. By the end of the 1980s, another miracle was occurring: the massive Russian aliya had just begun. The crowd of hundreds of people in Zion Square was united in a spirit of joy and excitement. At the moment that I lit the first Hanukka light, the crowd in the square shouted exuberantly. Just a year before, in 1987, I had been freed from the Gulag. The Pessah Haggada says: "In every generation there are those who rise up to kill us." The Communist "new pharaoh" thought he was going to realize his plan for a new "final solution": all institutions of Jewish education had been destroyed and we were deprived of any access to our national culture, including language and history. Jews in the USSR had been doomed to disappear just as the "ten lost tribes" had. But we began to resist. At first, it was just lone individuals; but after the 1967 Six Day War, the biblical "Let my people go!" became the slogan of the Russian exodus. Hundreds of refuseniks began to undertake widespread actions: public demonstrations, hunger strikes, letters of protest to the outside world. The rescue of millions of Russian-speaking Jews from complete annihilation by spiritual genocide was another miracle in the annals of Jewish history. It's hard to believe that the Soviets were incapable of preventing these Zionist actions. But among the miracles of that time could be counted the solidarity of Jews worldwide in support of their brothers and sisters in the USSR - from New York students to Tel Aviv professors, from Reform Jews of Arizona to ultra-Orthodox of Antwerp. Our protests also sparked concern from non-Jewish sources. True Christians from the Bible-believers to human rights champions answered God's call and also cried out, "Let His People Go." I had an opportunity see this united struggle on both sides of the Iron Curtain. After I made aliya in 1988, I had a meeting with president Ronald Reagan, who handed me a metallic bracelets that bore my name. He told me, "I received this bracelet from one of America's Jewish leaders for a special reason - that I not forget the plight of Soviet Jews. It was on my coffee table while you were in prison." Similar symbols of solidarity had been worn by Jews everywhere. This massive support became the second frontier in our fight for freedom, enabling us to stand up against a mighty totalitarian regime. The greatness of Hanukka had resulted from many "small" miracles. So, too, the miracle of the modern Russian exodus resulted from many "small" miracles of the awakening of Jewish identity in the midst of totalitarian communist imperium. As with thousands, so it happened with me. I wanted to know about my people and its culture, but that was impossible in a country where Jews were denied any access to their national education. But "he who seeks will find," and I was lucky to meet an elderly man, a former yeshiva student from the days of Czarist Russia, who began to teach me Hebrew and Jewish culture. This secret "Jewish education" transformed my essence as a "Soviet Jew," assimilated and ashamed of the Jewish notation on his ID card. Later, I met others who had found their way back to our people through personal search. But Jews of this kind were a drop in the ocean, while millions were the victims of national degradation. By the 1970s, a group of "refuseniks" dedicated themselves to the national survival of Soviet Jewry. The members of this Jewish cultural movement disseminated Jewish knowledge by many means: teaching Hebrew and Jewish history, studying religion and tradition. Jewish holidays were an important part of the movement's activities. THE KGB understood the danger to its imperial regime in the growing Jewish self-awareness. My 1972 Hanukka celebration, therefore, was in prison. We were eight Jews in a dark and gloomy cell of a large Moscow prison, where we were forced to spend 15 days after a public hunger strike. We put ourselves in a good mood by talking about the heroes of our history and the miracles of Hanukka. The absence of festive food was not so important as that of a menora, for what is Hanukka without light? And, even there in prison, a small miracle happened: One of us called a doctor on the pretext of being in pain and asked for some hemorrhoid candles. He got them. All the rest was just a matter of technique. Soon the light of Hanukka, the symbol of freedom, was glowing on our prison table. I had the chance for another uncommon Hanukka celebration in 1977. I had been arrested for "parasitism," but the real reason was the state's rejection of my right to give private Hebrew lessons. They sent me to internal exile for two years in a remote area of Siberia. There were no other Jews in the small mining town where I was forced to live. When Hanukka came, I prepared a primitive hanukkia - a piece of wood with eight nails to hold the candles. When I lit the first candle of the holiday, I surmised that it was the most northeastern Hanukka light in the world. Contemplating our miraculous struggle for existence in ancient and modern times, I couldn't but think that this little flame was uniting me with all the Jews of the world, no longer alone in that dark, remote part of the world. TWENTY YEARS have passed since the Hanukka lighting in Zion Square in 1988. Last year, the same great menora was erected in the center of Jerusalem. But it was hard not to notice that, in contrast to the excited crowd that had been there 20 years before, now the square was empty. When the first candle was lit, only a small group of haredim celebrated with singing and dancing. The next day, when I opened a major Israeli daily, and there was nothing about Hanukka on its front pages. Only one small episode, one might say. But doesn't it mark an Israel society that has become less Zionist - even post-Zionist? This is a time of crisis - moral and spiritual, as well as political (not to mention financial). What is Hanukka? This question was asked even in Talmudic times. For me, the answer lies in Jewish history itself: Hanukka is both the fight and the victory. We can see it through all the centuries and epochs: from the Egyptian Exodus of 18 centuries BCE through the Russian exodus of our 20th century; from the foundation of the Jewish state by King David in the 10th century BCE through David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of our modern state. The miracle of Hanukka is a result of our faith in God and His Torah, as well as our own struggle. Our history knows tragedies and defeats, but each time we were born anew. "The few and the weak," we have prevailed not only by our weapons but more often by patience and wisdom. For the 4,000 years of our history, we have been accompanied by existential miracles. Always a Maccabeus appeared to bear another miracle of Jewish victory. We need to learn from our history and seek leaders as impressive as their predecessors.