Columns | Reflections

On Hanukkah, like a moth to the flame

Amy Hirshberg Lederman

It began as a typical Jewish Christmas Eve. To borrow a quote from Elana Kagan: “Like most Jews, I was at a Chinese restaurant.”

As I walked through the restaurant, I passed table after table of Jewish friends and acquaintances happily sharing fried rice and eggrolls with family and friends.

My group had already claimed the prime real estate, a large table in the corner of the room with a huge Lazy Susan for sharing the inevitable overkill of food we’d order.

This year Christmas Eve fell on the third night of Hanukkah. One of my friends had thought to bring a Menorah and candles to dinner. Unusual, yes? But we were delighted as she put the menorah on the Lazy Susan, right next to the soy sauce and a bottle of wine.

As she placed three candles in the menorah, it occurred to us that we had a wonderful opportunity. There were more Jews in the restaurant than at some Friday night services. Why not invite them to light candles with us?

We began circulating through the restaurant, inviting anyone who wanted to join us to come and light. Chairs scraped, chopsticks dropped, and napkins littered the floor, as parents brought their babies, toddlers, and reluctant teens to our table. A multigenerational hug-fest ensued as more than 60 community members crowded together.

Like a moth drawn to a flame, we moved toward the light and celebrated the third night in song.

“This is our Hanukkah miracle,” I thought. “The coming together of a community of Jews creating a sacred moment in time.”

Much ink has been employed to explore the question of WHO is a Jew. But I am more interested in understanding WHY is a Jew. Specifically, why do Jews from all different backgrounds spontaneously gravitate toward creating a shared Jewish experience in a Chinese restaurant in Tucson? What drives the urge to identify and experience a Jewish moment like this? Is there really such a thing, as many Jewish sages (including my grandmother!) believed, as the pintele Yid?

In Yiddish, das pintele yid is translated to mean “the Jewish spark” that is said to dwell within every Jewish soul.

But what does it mean? A 2006 article in the Forward explored multiple interpretations of this Yiddish phrase that offer a greater opportunity to personally identify with it. Some of them are: “The core of one’s Jewishness, the Jewish spark, the spark of Jewish spirituality, the little point of light in the Jewish soul, the quintessence of Jewish identity, the heart and soul of each individual Jew, the tiny yet brilliant spark which is the saving remnant, however deeply buried, in every Jewish heart.”

You get the point. The pintele yid is a somewhat mystical idea that posits that all Jews, regardless of whether they are secular, Jews-by-choice, totally unaffiliated, or even unaware that they are Jewish, have buried, somewhere deep within their heart and soul, an indestructible essence of Jewishness that will make its presence felt at unexpected and unpredictable moments. It is why, perhaps, an agnostic Jew will ask a family member to say Kaddish for him. Or why at a time of crisis, one may spontaneously say the Shema.

To some, this may seem ridiculous; to others, a deep spiritual truth. But its origins can be found in the Torah. In Deuteronomy 29:9 Moses tells the Children of Israel: “You are standing here today, all of you, before God” and then continues to list everyone from the heads of tribes and elders to the small children, wood cutters, and proselytes. Moses then affirms God’s covenant as being all inclusive: “Neither with you only do I make this covenant; but with whoever is standing here today and also with whoever is not here with us today.”

There is an ancient midrash that interprets these words to mean that the soul of every Jew destined to be born in the future was present at the giving of the Torah. Every Jew thus has a “little Jewish spark” inside because every Jewish soul has, however inaccessible to consciousness, a memory of having been at Sinai.

Rabbi Adam Frank describes the pintele yid as “the fiber in each Jew that resists the darkness of the complacent and the ordinary.” He continues, “Like the menorah in the time of the Maccabees, the spark of each Jewish soul refuses to be extinguished.”

I love Frank’s comparison to a spark of light that refuses to be extinguished, especially in light of our own “Hanukkah Happening” on Christmas Eve.

Anne Frank said it most poignantly when she wrote: “Look at how a single candle can defy and define the darkness.”

Amy Hirshberg Lederman is an author, Jewish educator, public speaker, and attorney who lives in Tucson. Visit her website at www.amyhirshberg