I grew up celebrating Christmas. As an adult, navigating my family’s first Chanukah, I found myself approaching medical exhaustion. The parents at our preschool were often haggard, juggling continuous diapers, multiple children, demanding careers. Still, one of the teachers, “Josh,” noticed that I looked especially unbeautiful and inquired after my health. I explained that this was my first Chanukah and while I loved the Menorah and the fun, I could barely keep up with the gifts.
“What are you giving them?” Josh, who was Jewish, looked puzzled.
I explained and he began to laugh. “Amy, you’re trying to do Christmas for eight days. No wonder you’re overwhelmed. One night when I was a kid, my parents gave everybody a pencil in their favorite color. Mine was orange. I loved it.”
“So I don’t have to do a massive production every night?”
“It’s the Festival of Lights, not the Festival of Gifts. Happy Chanukah.” Josh hugged my shoulders and rushed to prevent a child from drinking a bowl of purple paint.
That night, my family lit our Menorah candles and we gave our kids three pencils: one red, one yellow, one pink. They were thrilled.
Chanukah will begin at sundown tonight. As I set out the same Menorah that my husband and I lit with our young children years ago, I think of the history of Jews. Yes, I see persecution. But I also I see resilience, perseverance, strength, hope. I see ordinary people stepping forward with extraordinary acts of courage and leadership. I see care and generosity, family and friendship, tradition and change. The Festival of Lights has lived through many eclipses of reason and decency. Light always returns.
Josh — decades after our conversation — thanks for your guidance. I get it. It’s about light, today and every day.
Amy Kaufman Burk is a therapist-turned-author in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Amy’s first novel, Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable, deals with homophobic bullying in high school, racial and economic diversity, and the power of friendship. Her second novel, Tightwire, follows a fictional psychotherapy from three perspectives — the rookie therapist scrambling to build a treatment — the patient struggling to heal — the supervisor guiding the young therapist through the complex emotional terrain of her first case.
Amy’s novels are available on Amazon.