Lighting the Lights

Carol Silver Elliott, President & CEO, Jewish Home Family

We are in the midst of Chanukah and it is a very different holiday this year.  Each candle seems to hold an additional meaning, an additional weight, as we light not just for ourselves but for those still being held hostage in Gaza, for the sanctity of Israel and for safety for Jews around the world.

I grew up with stories my father told about his early years in Poland.  He talked about the names he was called, about being chased by boys throwing rocks at him and shouting “Dirty Jew.”  I particularly remember the story he told about one of those incidents.  He climbed a tree in front of someone’s home to hide from those who were chasing him and tormenting him.  The homeowner saw him, came out, calling him the same foul names and threatened him if he did not get down from that tree immediately.  On another occasion, he was chased over a wooden bridge where he fell, a great splinter of wood gashing his chin.  He ended up with what he called “lockjaw” and what we would now call tetanus and he told us that his parents were certain he was going to die.  Somehow, he recovered and would often touch that scar just under his chin when deep in thought or heavy conversation.

He was one of the lucky ones.  His family was able to escape to the United States and to new lives when my dad was a young teen.  While he worked hard to become as American as possible, my father’s identity as a Jew was always foremost for him.  He was religiously devout and passionately connected to his heritage and his identity.  I think the first question he thought when meeting someone new was whether or not they were Jewish. And, like others of his generation, any public figure from politicians to athletes to actors was subject to either the “Is he or she?” question or the statement “He or she is.”  The world was clearly divided on that religious line.  Not that he was not open to those of other faiths, but he wanted to know who “our people” were.

I always saw my dad’s history as a story of “then.” I knew he had lost family in the Holocaust. Years later I looked for the shtetl where he had been born and found that the entire Jewish population had been obliterated.  And I accepted that as a horror of a time that has passed.  I stood on the grounds of Auschwitz, I looked at the bins of shoes and housewares and suitcases.  And I thought “never again” but without any sense that the threat to the Jewish people could ever rise to those levels again.

At this moment, though, I feel differently and I know many others who share those feelings.  Isolated incidents of antisemitism in the past disturbed and upset me but did not shake me.  Today, I confess, I am shaken.  The rhetoric on college campuses, the young people coming home from school because they don’t feel safe, that frightens me.  The social media posts and threads from both people I know and people that I don’t has led me to a sense of unease and instability.  Things I thought I knew and believed are now in question. And the world I took for granted is a world that is, for me, forever changed.

My dad would have been physically ill over what has happened in Israel.  He was a man whose emotions ruled his being and I can only imagine his days and nights glued to the news, watching every alert and praying nonstop for safety and peace.  I imagine my dad lighting the Chanukah candles this year.  He would have sung the blessings, in his clear tenor voice, and they would have wavered as tears filled his eyes and spilled, unheeded, down his cheeks.  I find myself doing the same.  Tears for the lives lost, the peril of the hostages and the State of Israel and tears of understanding that, indeed, Never Again is now.  

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