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Celebrating Hanukkah During The COVID-19 Pandemic

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Tonight is the third night of Hanukkah. Jewish families around the world will light candles on the menorah, possibly engage in socially distanced games of dreidel. Ari Saks is the rabbi of the Huntington Jewish Center, and he joins us now from Huntington, N.Y. Rabbi, thanks so much for being with us.

ARI SAKS: Thank you so much, Scott. It's a pleasure to be here.

SIMON: Well, sir, as I don't have to tell you, celebrations are going to be different this year. What parts of the Hanukkah story, under these circumstances, seem most worth hearing again this year?

SAKS: Yeah. I think that the story of Hanukkah really has meaning for us this year. Over the course of a couple centuries, beginning with Alexander the Great's conquering of the Middle East, the Greek influence on life infiltrated the lives of the Jews who were living in the land of Israel.

But there were many Jews who said, that's not who we are. We want to be able to believe in our God and to pray to our God and to do so in the temple in Jerusalem, which was ransacked by the Greeks. They had put up their gods in place of the altar for the God of Israel. And so they gathered together, led by a great warrior named Judah, and they fought back.

Judah and his followers were able to get to the temple to reclaim it, to rededicate it. And that was not the end of the war, but that was in the midst of the war against the Greeks. The holiday of Hanukkah is not about being victorious at the very end of the day. It's about celebrating a victory in the middle of a much larger battle.

Right now, we are still in the battle against COVID. I mean, thank God we have a vaccine coming, but still, there's just great fear that we're never going to be able to return to life as normal. During each of these days, in the midst of this battle against this terrible pandemic, we are able to find some element of victory, find something to hold on to to give us hope for the future.

SIMON: I've heard it said over the years the miracle is not just the light lasting for eight nights, but it's the faith of the people to light it the first night.

SAKS: Yes. It takes a lot of guts to be able to light a candle and say that this candle is going to burn and represent my hope that there will be a future that I can hold on to that's going to be better, even more so than in the present.

SIMON: I gather, Rabbi, too, you've done some research on Hanukkah celebrations in particularly dire times, including in Auschwitz.

SAKS: Yeah. This commandant of the Nazis thought it would be right to torment the people by saying, hey, Jews, guess what. Don't you know that it's Hanukkah? See? We lit candles for you. And they pointed to the crematoria that were at full blast and then said, oh, we have a Hanukkah gift for you, and it was an extra loaf of bread and some margarine. And I think the Nazis just thought that they were going to fight tooth and nail just to get a little piece of it.

But these Jews inside this concentration camp said, you know what? We're going to turn this tormenting moment of being ridiculed into the greatest miracle, which is to take the margarine and a loaf of bread and some other resources that they had available to them - and I have no idea how to do it, but they formed the bread and the margarine into candles that they could actually light in the midst of the burning crematoria that they saw by the window.

The mitzvah, the commandment of Hanukkah, is to show off the candle to any passerby. You're supposed to put it in your window so that people passing by can see it, and they could be informed of the miracle of Hanukkah. And these Jews in Auschwitz - they took the candle, and they put it by the window so that the Nazis could see it. These Jews were scoring a victory over death.

SIMON: Rabbi Saks, what do you see when you look at a menorah and the dancing lights?

SAKS: You know, what's amazing is that when you take a step back, all of those flames that are uniquely their own, they all look like one massive, giant single flame together.

In America, in this incredibly diverse world that we live in, Hanukkah is one of many holidays of the season and many holidays that are festivals of lights. Obviously, we have Christmas, which is an incredible festival of light. My 4-year-old daughter was in a class and had to be over Zoom because we were quarantined. One of the families, who is of Indian - Hindi - descent, shared the Hindi tradition of Diwali with all of us. And it was beautiful to see another festival of light.

This is a time of year when all of us are searching to find light in the midst of the deepest darkness of a year. The miracle of Hanukkah is that we can all be who we need to be independently and uniquely and, at the same time, stand together as one.

SIMON: Rabbi Ari Saks of the Huntington Jewish Center, thank you so much for being with us, sir.

SAKS: Thank you so much, Scott. And happy holidays to you and to your family.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.