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Lights, Camera, Hanukkah

by Rabbi Jesse Olitzky

While Jewish holidays follow the lunar Hebrew calendar and thus the date that they are observed slightly changes from year-to-year, Hanukkah, the Jewish winter solstice festival, is the closest Jewish holiday to Christmas. With the commercialization of Christmas, there is no doubt that adding gift giving to Hanukkah is the American Jewish community’s attempt to feel included and equal in America’s celebration of the holiday season. Actor and comedian Adam Sandler drove this point home with his Hanukkah song:

Instead of one day of presents, we have eight crazy nights.

The early observance of Hanukkah this year allows us to take a step back and give thanks, to not focus on the material gifts that are too often associated with the holiday season, and instead focus on the true gifts of the holiday.

“Lights, Camera, Hanukkah” is a celebration of the true gifts in life that we are thankful for, each night focusing on a new gift and new opportunity to rejoice.

THE EIGHTH NIGHT – ‘Roar’ with courage: The gift of courage

Many have called Katy Perry’s latest pop single, Roar, the hit song of the season. Perry’s song speaks of the fear that exists within each individual to silence ourselves. As she sings:

I used to bite my tongue and hold my breath
Scared to rock the boat and make a mess

We often are afraid of voicing our opinion, of standing up for ourselves and for others. We fear speaking up because others may disagree. Yet, what is right is not always popular. Popularity of an opinion should not silence or stifle us. Rather, we should stand up and conquer our fears. We should have the courage to do so.

Katy Perry Roar

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Standing up is not about physical strength. Rather, it is about the gift of courage, the Divine spark within us that allows for us to be brave enough to do what is right. On Shabbat Hanukkah, the Sabbath during the Festival of Lights, the Jewish community reads from the prophetic text of Zechariah 4:6, in which on behalf of the Lord, Zechariah declares:

Not by might, Not by power, but by God’s spirit alone.

Brute strength is not what makes us successful. Rather, the courage to do what is right and stand up for what is right, recognizing that doing so is a Divine act, allows us to make a change in our lives and a change in this world.

When we have the power to do what we believe is right, nothing and no one can hold us down. As Perry continues in her song:

You held me down, but I got up
Already brushing off the dust
You hear my voice, you hear that sound
Like thunder, gonna shake the ground
You held me down, but I got up
Get ready ‘cause I had enough

The gift of courage allowed the Maccabees to fight for what they believed in. Even as those around them disagreed and tried to physically and emotionally force their beliefs on the Maccabees, the Maccabees stayed true to their faith and to what they believed was right. This led to the miracle of the Hanukkah story. Such a miracle was ignited by the courage of Judah Maccabee, his brothers, and his followers.

The great Rabbi Hillel teaches in the rabbinic text Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Sages:

When there are no good people around, stand up and be a good person.

Rabbi Hillel challenges us to have the courage to do what is right. On this eighth and final night of Hanukkah, let the lights of the Menorah continue to glow within us. As the holiday concludes, let us celebrate the gift of courage and have the courage to always stand up for ourselves and others. Like Katy Perry, as long as we’ve “got the eye of the tiger” — the the lights of the Menorah — then nothing can hold us back. May we call have the courage to roar!

Captain Phillips

THE SEVENTH NIGHT – Oh Captain, My Captain: The gift of miracles

I remember the news coverage of the 2009 hijacking on the Maersk Alabama. I remember being glued to the 24-hour cable television news coverage of this modern day scary tale of piracy. I remember how amazed I was — and the world was — when the Captain, Captain Richard Phillips, not only survived, but was taken hostage in order to spare the lives of his crew.

I never imagined that this would be an appealing story for Hollywood to retell, yet, I was on the edge of my seat throughout the movie, even though I knew the ending! Newcomer Barkhad Abdi was stunning as pirate leader Abduwali Muse and Tom Hanks’ performance as Captain Richard Phillips brought me to tears.

Paul GreengrassCaptain Phillips has grossed over $100 million domestically at the box office thus far and has received overwhelmingly positive reviews. What made the story so compelling was how truly improbably it was. One cannot even begin to conceive how four armed pirates can take control over a vessel with an unarmed captain and unarmed crew and somehow, the crew survives and prevails. The cargo is untouched and the crew is unharmed.

Captain Phillips posterPhillips was smart and stood up for the safety of his crew. He tried to divert the pirates by having an imaginary conversation over the radio with the military and he made sure the crew, while in hiding, could hear his entire conversation with the Somali pirates. Yet, when such a story is so unbelievable, there is only one explanation: it was a miracle.

We tend to not use the word “miracle” a lot. After all, we don’t experience the biblical “splitting the sea” miracles in our lives and often wonder about God’s Divine presence. Still, we need to learn to appreciate the miracles in our lives, both large and small. Traditional Jewish liturgy gives one the opportunity to begin morning prayer reciting a list of blessings, a list many refer to as the “everyday miracle” blessings. True miracles in our lives are those that we all too often take for granted: health, safety, family, shelter, food on our tables, and clothes on our backs. These are the miracles that we must take a step back and be grateful for. Still, there are also greater miracles in the world around us, occurrences so unexplainable, that we conclude that there must have been Divine intervention. I believe that the true story of Captain Richard Phillips and the hijacking of Maersk Alabama, retold in the film Captain Phillips, is such a miracle.

On the seventh night of Hanukkah, we are thankful for the gift of miracles. The liturgical addition is said in the Jewish community during the festival of Hanukkah:

We thank You, Lord, for the miraculous deliverance for the heroism, and for the triumphs that You have done for our ancestors in their day, as well as in our time.

We thank God, however we view God and whatever we call God, for the miracles of Hanukkah: the miracle that we teach our children about oil lasting for eight days, the military victory of the Maccabees, and the miracle of the survival of Judaism. Yet, the true gift of Hanukkah is the appreciation of miracles in our lives, in the world around us. We learn to appreciate the everyday miracles and the miraculous newsworthy events.

Don’t try to explain the unexplainable, to make sense of the inconceivable. Rather, be willing to say God is present in this moment, in our lives. Acknowledge the miracles around us. Acknowledge that life is a miracle.


Images via IMDB

THE SIXTH NIGHT – Gladiators in suits: The gift of community

Netflix has saved me again. Following the birth of my son, several weeks ago, I have had many sleepless nights. Every couple of hours, we are awake again, feeding and changing diapers. Netflix has given an alternative for me to watch at two in the morning when I am awake. Instead of the middle of the night infomercials, I’ve survived the late night feedings by binge watching Scandal.

Scandal, Shonda Rhimes’ latest successful show following Grey’s Anatomy and the now concluded Private Practice, tells the story of Olivia Pope (played magnificently by Kerry Washington), Washington DC’s go to political crisis manager. Her firm, Olivia Pope & Associates lies, cheats, deceives, steals, and yes, maybe even kills, to manage a crisis. They do wrong, but claim to wear “white hats,” doing wrong for the right reasons. The “associates” Harrison, Huck, Abby, and Quinn have learned not to ask questions or challenge Olivia’s motives. Instead, they are “Gladiators in suits.” They do what is asked of them, and protect each other. What they do may not be legal. What they do may not be right. Surely, though they care about each other and look after each other. This was reenforced by season 3’s initial storyline.

Scandal posterWhen Olivia Pope was named by the media as the President’s alleged mistress, Pope’s co-workers devise a plan to place the blame on someone else. They tarnish the name and image of an innocent young woman, but do so, to protect their boss and friend. They lean on each other; they depend on each other; they look out for each other. They are community.

Judaism places great emphasis on community. Certain liturgical prayers, including those recited by a mourner, require the presence of a minyan, a prayer quorum of ten Jews. The explanation is simple: one should not be alone during times of joy and celebration and times of mourning and sorrow. During the highs and lows of life, we depending on community to lift us up, to celebrate with us, to cry with us, to laugh with us, to be the shoulder to lean on, to be the hand to hold. So too, one celebrates Hanukkah together with community. We depend on community; we spread joy with community. We are each other’s gladiators in suits.

Rabbinic literature teaches that, unlike the Sabbath candles which were used to help us, the candles of the menorah aren’t meant to light up our homes. Instead, we place the menorahs in our windows, to pirsum hanes, to spread the miracle and joy of the holiday with community. Tonight we unwrap the gift of community. Community allows us to celebrate together, but reminds us that there are so many that don’t have a community to turn to. Let us open up our hearts, our arms, and our homes, for all who need a place to celebrate. Let us expand our communities so that everyone has a place to call home.

I am certainly not suggesting that community leads us to make unethical decisions, like on Rhimes’ political thriller. However, like the fictional Olivia Pope & Associates, we do not challenge and we do not question. Instead, we simply embrace each other and embrace community. Together, with this gift, we celebrate together and take comfort, knowing that we always have a shoulder to lean on.


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THE FIFTH NIGHT – The rogue, intense, crazy, confused CIA agent: The gift of dedication

After Homeland, Showtime’s top show, ended last season with a shocker, fans and viewers were on the edge of their seats awaiting the twists and turns of Season 3. Homeland is based on the Israeli show Hatufim, Prisoners of War, which is available to stream on Hulu and is even more exciting and intense. Last season’s finale shocked viewers by starting off dull and then out of nowhere, blowing up the CIA building. Congressman and supposed terrorist Brody (played by Damian Lewis) flees with the help of the CIA agent who attempts to catch him, even while falling in love with him, Carrie Mathison (played by Claire Danes).

Due to its superb acting and thrilling story lines, Homeland has been the recipient of many awards, winning the Golden Globe for Best Television Series (Drama) in 2011 and 2012 and winning the Emmy for Outstanding Drama in 2012. Fans everywhere anxiously waited for the new season, yet it has been a disappointment.

homeland-posterFollowing the literally and figuratively explosive ending to last season, this season has been dull, slow, and boring. In fact, I almost gave up on the show, debating whether or not to watch or erase the recent episodes that have begun to pile up on DVR. The season started with Claire Danes’ Carrie being blamed for the CIA’s failings, publicly censured for having a sexual relationship with a suspected terrorist, and was put into a psychiatric hospital. While institutionalized, she was medicated, sedated, and restrained her. The viewer is meant to think that she had become the scapegoat of the CIA until she is released. Believed to want revenge on the CIA and Saul Berenson (played by Mandy Patinkin), Carrie successfully made contact with a senior Iranian Intelligence Officer. Only then did the viewers realize that this was a part of Carrie and Saul’s covert operation to find out who was responsible for the bombing of the Central Intelligence Agency’s building.

The character of Carrie Mathison has been called many things: intense, crazy, double-crossing. Yet, there is one defining characteristic of her, based on her early season challenges: dedicated. For the sake of the CIA and love of country, Carrie is willing to have her sexual relationships discussed on the floor of the Senate and be institutionalized and drugged. She believed in the goal. She believed in the mission. That is the essence of dedication.

Hanukkah literally means “dedication,” which comes from the Hebrew root meaning to dedicate, to consecrate, or to inaugurate. The dedication of Hanukkah refers to the rededication of the Temple that stood in Jerusalem following the Maccabbees’ military victory of King Antiochus and his people. Antiochus had turn the Temple, the central location for Jewish worship, into a place for pagan worship. Upon relighting the Menorah that stood in the Temple, they transformed the desecrated space to a dedicated space.

We commonly use the term “to dedicate” to refer to more than just a consecration. We dedicate ourselves. To dedicate means “to set apart for special use” and “to set apart for a religious purpose.” To dedicate one’s self means that we are setting ourselves apart for special use; we are committing ourselves to a specific course of action. On Hanukkah, and during all holidays, we rededicate ourselves to faith, to belief, to tradition, to something larger than ourselves. Tonight we celebrate the gift of dedication. May we all dedicate ourselves to something larger, to something greater. May we rededicate ourselves to the Divine, and to each other.

Catching fire

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THE FOURTH NIGHT – May the odds be ever in our favor: The gift of freedom

I admit it: I am totally a Hunger Games fan. Even before the movies came out, I was a fan of the books. I appreciate any literary or cinematic science fiction futuristic dystopian depiction. In all cases, the author, writer, or director uses the dystopian society to offer a deeper message. The fictional future serves as a prophetic threat reminding us that this may be our future if we do not change our ways.

I was excited to see The Hunger Games when it hit theaters over a year ago. You know how excited I am to see a movie by the Fandango factor. Do I buy the tickets ahead of time or take a chance, show up to the theater, see that it is sold out and settle for a less impressive movie that I really don’t want to see?! The Hunger Games and its sequel, which recently hit theaters, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, both easily passed my Fandango test.

The Hunger Games throws two randomly selected (unless you are Katniss Everdeen and volunteer!) tributes from each of the twelve districts of Panem (formerly North America) to fight to the death. 24 enter the arena and only one survives. The tagline of the film is “May the odds ever be in your favor.” The irony is that the odds are never in any of the tribute’s favor. They are 1 of 24; those odds aren’t in anyone’s favor. Yet, when the winner of the Hunger Games is victorious, it is against all odds.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire certainly did not disappointment, as evidenced by box office results. Catching-Fire_posterThe film brought in $161.1 million during its opening weekend, making it the highest grossing November debut ever! The film eventually puts Katniss and her maybe real, but maybe fake, love interest Peeta back into the arena for a second time for a Quarter Quell edition of the Hunger Games, pitting all surviving past victors against each other for the Capitol’s amusement. However, that is not really the plot of this sequel. The Quarter Quell is the result of the real plot: Katniss’ willingness to stand up to the powerful Capitol and its dictator, President Snow. This has led to rebellions brewing in each of the districts. She has become the face of the rebellion. I won’t spoil the end of the film (or the book), but let’s just say that these rebellions were only the tip of the iceberg.

Katniss is the modern day Judah Maccabee, the leader of the revolt against King Antiochus and the Assyrian Greeks, and the hero of the Hanukkah story. Antiochus hellenized the people of Judea, forcing them to adopt Greek culture, speech, and religious practice, but the Maccabees refused. Many modern scholars suggest that the story of Hanukkah was actually a civil war between the Sadducees whom embraced Hellenization and the traditional Pharisees who protested it. Either way, the Maccabees were greatly outnumbered, and yet, somehow, were victorious. The odds were certainly not in their favor, but they won! This is the miracle of Hanukkah that we celebrate – the miracle of victory against all odds. The Hunger Games reminds us of that miracle.

Judah Maccabee became the face of the revolt, whether he liked it or not, and represented all that was possible. Judah Maccabee represented religious freedom from oppression. The Maccabees’ victory led to the continuation of the Jewish people, with each yearly celebration serving as a recommitment to faith and an example of that freedom that the Maccabees fought for.

The Menorah is like the Mockingay, a symbol of strength, a symbol of possibility, a symbol of freedom. When one individual stands up for freedom, others see that freedom is possible. That is how rebellions spread. That is how the Panem rebellion spread. So too, that is how the Maccabees went from Mattathias and his five sons to the vast Hasmonean dynasty. On this night of Hanukkah, we are grateful for the gift of freedom.

Regardless of one’s faith, we all understand the importance of freedom. We fight for our continued freedom and stand up to ensure freedom for all of God’s creations. May the flames of the Hanukkah candles remind us of this freedom. Let us never take freedom for granted, and may the odds ever be in our favor.

The Goldbergs

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THE THIRD NIGHT – A family affair: The gift of family

The old adage goes “You can pick your friends, but you can’t pick your family.” That sums up the ABC sitcom The Goldbergs, created by Adam Goldberg and starring Jeff Garlin and Wendi McLendon-Covey. While the show’s premise (and much of its humor) comes from the fact that it is based in the 1980’s and we can easily look back on how embarrassing and silly clothing, electronics, slang, and all that was trendy back then is today, the true nature of the show is Adam Goldberg sharing his real family experiences as he was growing up.

Unlike other family sitcoms like The Cosby Show or Leave It to Beaver which sought to teach a deeper more profound lesson in epsiodes, The Goldbergs focuses on family first. The interactions with various family members make the show, rather than those family members simply being characters used to make a specific point. Goldberg uses awkward conversations and experiences in his youth to share his story, but one thing is clear: the message of this show is family.

The comedy has received mixed reviews and surely there is nothing groundbreaking about it, but the role of family as the central theme of sitcom is refreshing. Every episode, every joke, every serious (and not-so-serious) conversation revolves around family. So too, in our own lives, it is our familial ties and bonds that define who we are.

Some of us check in with our family members regularly. Those who live close to relatives have weekly dinners; grandparents become the go to babysitter for grandchildren; aunts and uncles randomly stop by just to say hello. For many, myself included, who don’t live down the street from relatives, phone calls, e-mails, and yes, even Skype, keep families connected. The holiday of Hanukkah is an opportunity for families to come together and celebrate together. This is more than just about giving and receiving gifts. This is about sharing in family feasts, multiple generations lighting the candles of the Hanukkiyah, the Hanukkah Menorah, side-by-side, and sharing in the joy of the holiday season.

Hanukkah also celebrates the opportunity to observe and practice Judaism, one’s faith, instead of being forced to believe something else. The true miracle of Hanukkah then is the continuity of faith, of religion, and of belief. There is no greater example of that continuity than when families, from generation to generation, come together to celebrate the sanctity of the holiday. Tonight, we are grateful for the gift of family. Our family is both the nature and the nurture of our upbringings. Biological family members impact whom we are genetically, but all those that we call family (even if they aren’t really related to us!) influence whom we will become. Let us be grateful for the love, for the learning, and for the support system that family offers. Let us also be thankful for the heated arguments, embarrassing moments, and unforgettable memories. We are whom we are because of family. There is no greater gift than that!


Image via Wikipedia

THE SECOND NIGHT – Thanksgiving is about more than just turkeys: The gift of Thanksgiving

Free Birds, the Relativity Media released 3D animated film, premiered in theaters at the beginning of November, in time for the Thanksgiving holiday. The film tells the tale of turkeys, voiced by Owen Wilson, Woody Harrelson, Amy Poehler, who in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, fear for their lives because they know they’re on the menu!

While the film has gotten mostly negative reviews, it has been successful at the box office as the go to Thanksgiving-themed family film during this holiday season. For turkeys have become what Thanksgiving is all about Turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes, and football.

Thanksgiving, finally proclaimed as an annual national holiday by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863 when he declared “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens,” is meant to celebrate all that we are grateful for. While the backdrop of Native Americans and Pilgrims living in peace and harmony may be fictional (the reality is of course much more shameful and bloody), the holiday emphasizes all the is supposedly great about America: freedom, peace, unity, and grace. While this vision isn’t completely a reality, we take a moment to be grateful for what we have, and strive for the full vision to come to fruition. We take a step back and give thanks because with the hustle and bustle of life, we forget sometimes to stop and be appreciative. We forget to stop and give thanks. We forget that Thanksgiving is not about turkeys and football (or even animated turkeys running for their lives!). The holiday is about giving thanks for family, for friends, for community, to God.

Free Birds posterThere has been much hoopla this year about “Thanksgivukkah,” the convergence of the Jewish celebration of Hanukkah (the first day and second night) falling on the American holiday of Thanksgiving. How rare is such a convergence? It won’t happen again for approximately 70,000 years! Yet, if Hanukkah is really about the gift of miracles, we cannot appreciate God’s true miracles unless we appreciate the Divine. We forget that on Thanksgiving, while we give thanks for the food on our table and the blessings in our lives, it is God — however we refer to God and in whatever language we use to speak to God — that we give thanks to. Truthfully, the concepts of Thanksgiving and miracles go hand-in-hand. We give thanks to truly appreciate the miracles in our lives.

Many historians suggest that the American celebration of Thanksgiving is rooted in the biblical festival of Sukkot, the Feast of Booths, the fall harvest festival. So too, the original celebration of Hanukkah, when the Temple in Jerusalem was rededicated, was a delayed celebration of Sukkot, which the Maccabees were prohibited by the Assyrian Greeks from celebrating. The concept of giving thanks, rooted in prayer, rooted in practice, and rooted in celebration of Thanksgiving actually has much to do with Hanukkah, even if we only get the chance to celebrate the two simultaneously every 70,000 years or so. On this Thanksgiving day, may we give the gift of Thanksgiving, and always remember – not just on holidays, but everyday – to give thanks for all of the blessings in our lives.

Sit around the Thanksgiving table and share what you are thankful for. Thank the Divine and thank each other for the blessings in our lives, despite the challenges that each of us face. Let us remember that this holiday is about more than football. This holiday is about more than turkeys. This holiday is about giving thanks… and so is Hanukkah!

Images via Wikipedia

THE FIRST NIGHT – Lighting up ‘The Dark World’: The gift of light in the darkness

The latest chapter in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Thor: The Dark World, which premiered in theaters at the beginning of the month, was a continuation of the struggle for power between the brothers of Asgard, Thor and Loki. As a self-described comic book nerd, I’ve loved every step of Marvel’s latest round of adaptations to the big screen. The Thor sequel was no different. At its core, the message of the film was certainly appropriate for the holiday season.

Thor posterPicking up after the destruction that Loki caused in his attempt to conquer Planet Earth in The Avengers, this film focuses on villain Malekith, leader of the Dark Elves, who were thought to be extent, reacquiring the Aether, a weapon that spreads darkness throughout the universe and thus, destroys the nine realms. With the Convergence, the rare occasion when the nine realms align and portals from one realm to the next appear, on the horizon, Malekith’s reacquisition of the Aether would mean that darkness (and thus evil, hate, and destruction that comes from this darkness) would spread throughout the universe. Thor, when he is not sidetracked by his romantic relationship with Natalie Portman’s Dr. Jane Foster, joins forces with his hated brother to put a stop to the Aether’s dark forces. This is not a struggle for power. They do not attempt to acquire the Aether so Asgard could control the dark forces. They do not wish to spread darkness throughout the world. Rather, in acquiring the Aether and stopping the darkness, their goal is to light up the world.

The holiday of Hanukkah in Hebrew is also called Chag Urim, the festival of lights. On Hanukkah, we light the Menorah, the Hanukkah candelabra. Doing so acknowledges the miraculous story of Hanukkah — or at least the one we teach our children — about the oil burning for eight days even after only having enough oil to last for one day. More accurately though, Hanukkah is Judaism’s winter solstice holiday, a holiday focused on the darkest point of the year. We light the Hanukkah Menorah to light up the darkness.

Jewish tradition teaches to be an ohr lagoyim, a light unto the nations, to light up the darkness of the world. More specifically, we live in a world full of darkness: evil, discrimination, violence, and hate at every corner. We can feel helpless and choose to do nothing, or we can be that light that lights up the darkness. Like Thor who battled to acquire the Aether and rid the world of darkness, we too can light up the darkness of this world. The gift of light, exemplified in the Hanukkiyah, the Hanukkah Menorah, is a reminder that all it takes is a small spark to light up a dark abyss. May we all be brave and courageous enough to create our own light and light up the darkness in our own lives and in the world around us. Thor had his hammer, Mjölnir, to defeat evil. We have each other. May we work together to spread the gift of light and light up all corners of the earth.

Rabbi Jesse Olitzky

About Rabbi Jesse Olitzky

Rabbi Jesse Olitzky currently serves as rabbi and spiritual leader at Congregation Beth El in South Orange, NJ, where he lives with his wife, daughter and son. Ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Olitzky believes in creating multiple entry points to discuss issues of faith and God, including his Pop Elul Project. He blogs regularly at You can follow him on Twitter at @JMOlitzky

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