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CHANNUKAH MESSAGE: SHARANSKY, CHANNUKAH AND THE SOVIET GULAG

By Ruth Ashrafi, Director of Judaics, Gray Academy

At Purim we read Megillat Esther, during the Seder meal we read the Haggada, and at Chanukka we read… nothing?! Sure, each night we light an additional candle, we sing Maoz Tzur, and we eat latkes. But after three nights, candlelighting starts to become a routine, and then there are still five more nights to go.

Noam Zion and Barbara Spectre (A Different Light – The Hanukkah Book of Celebration, Simcha Media Group NJ, 2000) decided that Chanukka deserved a Megillat Chanukka, and they wrote … two! The first Megilla retells the story of the evil Antioch and the heroic Maccabees in eight portions, one for each night. The second set of eight readings, Profiles in Modern Jewish Courage, contains eight biographical readings, one for each night, about great Jewish men, women and teenagers who have performed heroic acts. Under very different circumstances, each one of them stood up for the values that s/he believed in, like the Maccabees did many centuries before.

This very diverse group of eight contains a refusenik, a prisoner in a concentration camp, a Bar Mitzvah in Israel, a Bar Mitzvah in Florida, an Israeli politician, a Jewish chaplain in the US army, a rabbi, a fund-raiser, and a social activist. Their “amazing acts in times of war and exemplary deeds in times of peace” remind us that every Jew can be a hero.
When I write this article, there are four more nights of Chanukka to go. Here is a summary of one of my favourite readings:

 

Natan Sharansky, Fear No Evil – Hanukkah in the Soviet Gulag (Russia, 1980s)

“The holiday of Hanukkah was approaching. At the time, I was the only Jew in the prison zone, but when I explained that Hanukkah was a holiday of national freedom, of returning to one’s own culture in the face of forced assimilation, my friends in our “kibbutz” decided to celebrate it with me. They even made me a wooden menorah, decorated it, and found some candles.”

(For the next five nights, the prison authorities allow Natan Sharansky to celebrate Hanukkah with his fellow prisoners. Then, on the sixth night, his menorah is confiscated and the celebrations are forbidden. Sharansky declares a hungerstrike. Uncomfortable with their determined prisoner, the head of the prison, Major Osin, summons Sharansky to his office and tries to persuade him to halt his hungerstrike.)

“Osin promised to see to it personally that in the future nobody would hinder me from praying, and that this should not be a concern of the KGB.

“Then what’s the problem?” I said. “Give me back the menorah, as tonight is the last evening of Hanukkah. Let me celebrate it now, and taking into account your assurances for the future, I shall end the hunger strike.”

“What is a menorah?”

“Candlesticks.” …
 

Osin thought it over and promptly the confiscated menorah appeared from his desk… “I need eight candles,” I said… Osin took out a handsome inlaid pocketknife and deftly cut me eight candles. I arranged the candles and went to the coatrack for my hat, explaining to Osin that “during the prayer you must stand with your head covered and at the end say “Amen.”” He put on his major’s hat and stood. I lit the candles and recited my own prayer in Hebrew, which went something like this: “Blessed are You, Adonai, for allowing me to rejoice on this day of Hanukkah, the holiday of our liberation, the holiday of our return to the way of our fathers. Blessed are You, Adonai, for allowing me to light these candles. May You allow me to light the Hanukkah candles many times in your city, Jerusalem, with my wife, Avital, and my family and friends.”

This time, however, inspired by the sight of Osin standing meekly at attention, I added in Hebrew: “And may the day come when all our enemies, who today are planning our destruction, will stand before us and hear our prayers and say “Amen.””
“Amen,” Osin echoed back. He sighed with relief, sat down and removed his hat. For some time we looked silently at the burning candles. They quickly melted, and the hot wax was spread pleasantly over the glass surface of the table. Then Osin caught himself, summoned Gavriliuk, and brusquely ordered him to clean it up.

I returned to the barracks in a state of elation, and our kibbutz made tea and merrily celebrated the end of Hanukkah. Naturally, I told them about Osin’s “conversion,” and it soon became the talk of the camp….”

From: A Different Light, pp. 53-56.

 
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