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Monday, December 26, 2011

The Sixth Candle: Persecution and Freedom

 
"Battle Between the Maccabees and the Bacchides"
Jean Fouquet, vellum, 1470, Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, France

A significant part of the story of Chanukah concerns the up-rising of the Maccabees against the Greek oppressors. The above illustration by Jean Fouquet (1420-1481 France) shows the Macabees in pitched battle and was from the French translation of Josephus Flavius 's historical  accounts, "Antiquites Judaiques." Fouquet, a master of the portrait miniature (and perhaps the inventor of the genre) and illuminated manuscripts, is also credited, some claim, with creating the first self-portrait and may have been the first French painter to travel to Italy for artistic inspiration, leading a long line who came in his wake.

One of the stories in the second book of the Maccabees details the martyrdom of seven brothers who refused to transgress Jewish laws as decreed by their conquerors, and one after another all seven brothers were killed in front of their mother's eyes. She, Hanna, even refused to plead for the youngest to be spared,  and then died herself. Their graves are said to be in the ancient cemetery in TsfatWith this but one tale of many instances of persecution, it  provides the background for the fierce motivation needed to fuel the few Maccabee rebels to rise against an enemy which over-powered them in numbers and strength.

Unfortunately, it is never too long of a historical stretch for one to find more recent examples of persecution in Jewish history. The Sixth Candle of Chanukah may be as appropriate a place as any to make this connection, six being a number with direct associations to recent tragic Jewish history. We may never know all the names of the Hannas who bore the unspeakable of seeing  a child killed before their eyes during the Holocaust - not for refusing to break commandments, but for the crime of being a Jew.  


The Jewish Museum in New York is currently exhibiting "An Artist Remembers: Hanukkah Lamps Selected by Maurice Sendak"  in which illustrator Sendak acts as curator. Sendak, who still feels the loss of the world of his eastern European parents, avoided the most ornate and chose instead the most square and simple lamps, saying


“Their very simplicity reminded me of the Holocaust. And I thought it was inappropriate for me to be thinking of elaboration.”
One of the lamps chosen has its own special significance. It was created by artisans who were Jewish Holocaust survivors in a Displaced Persons camp in 1945 and  was presented as a gift to honor the U.S. General Joseph McNarney, the Military Governor of occupied Germany, for the extra efforts he took to ensure not only their physical survival, but their spiritual survival as well.

The Obama White House requested this particular chanukiah to use in the White House ceremony, which focused specifically on the contribution of the military service. Not only did the White House decide to use a Chanukah lamp of such great significance, but it went the extra mile to address the comfort of all the invited guests to the ceremony, including those who adhere to the Jewish dietary laws. Continuing a practice started by Laura Bush, a team of religious experts were invited in to convert the White House kitchen to a kosher kitchen for the day.

This act should not be taken for granted. One of the distinguishing features of the United States is that it was founded by those escaping religious persecution and seeking religious freedom. One of the underlying messages of  Chanukah is preservation of the unique traditions of the Jewish People.Beyond what Martha Stewart would require in the way of  the niceties of formal hostessing (and even if our inner cynic knows it presented a great opportunity for a pre-election photo-op) the symbolism of this act speaks volumes about religious freedom and cannot be over-estimated.



"Chanukah Lamp" Landsberg am Lech, Germany, 1945 Collection of the Jewish Museum New York

 




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