Rabbi Elizabeth S. Wood

Rabbi Elizabeth S. Wood
Celebrating Havdallah

Monday, November 29, 2010

Rabbi Wood & the tale of the Electric Menorah

"It's the third night of Chanukah....who wants to screw in the light bulb to the menorah?"
My brother and I would jump up and yell "I do! I do!" My father would then hand one of us the light bulb and we'd gingerly screw it in place before he plugged it in. The smell of latkes coming from the kitchen, where my mother was undoubtedly covered in flour and potatoes, was overwhelming our house. But this was Chanukah - or at least what I remember best: the glow of our electric menorah in the window during those cold midwestern nights, the smell of latkes cooking in the kitchen, a few small presents on the dining room table and, of course, dreidles and gelt.

Whenever I tell this story - or reflect on the warmth of Chanukah that I felt as a child - I always get the sense that my family is embarrassed about our electric Menorah. My mother is sure to remind me, every year, "You know, we always lit REAL candles too!" "Of course," I respond, "but what I loved most was the orange glow of that electric menorah against the dark of night. The safety and warmth it provided me as a child. For whatever reason, that image sticks with me the most." Isn't that what Chanukah is about - safety and security against the unknown, families, and warm memories of our ever burning lights?
And electric Menorahs are not that strange. There is a HUGE electric Menorah that is lit in Jerusalem every year. The Reform Temple of Forest Hills will be lighting our own electric Menorah outside the building at our Friday night Chanukah dinner and dedication. And I know many other synagogues and communities will be plugging in, screwing on, and polishing their electric Menorahs this season too!

The funny thing is, year after year with all of the children gone, and even after they've moved houses, my dad STILL puts up our electric menorah. Sure, the light bulbs have died or changed color (the reds and blues are pretty too!), there are no kids eagerly waiting to screw in the bulbs, and we have different neighbors and postal workers asking when Chanukah starts so they can see the menorah. But it's such a part of our family tradition - so every year, it gets lit.

My mother, who is originally from New York, brought the Menorah back to the Midwest one year as she was heading home from a trip out East. She thought it would be fun and feel special to see one electric menorah in the midst of a slew of Christmas-light laden homes. Little did she know what a long-lasting tradition she was creating for us...

Chanukah traditions are a special thing. Although Chanukah is not a major festival in Judaism, it IS a holiday and it is a great joyous time for us to remember past miracles. The proximity to Christmas makes Chanukah always get a little more press than it deserves, but it's not bad press. And every family has different traditions. Some families celebrate Chanukah and Christmas. Some families make latkes and sufganiyot (doughnuts)to eat with friends and family. Some families figure out traditions for focusing less on the gifts or gelt and more on the historical significance. Some families even screw in the electric bulbs by the third night. Every family has a different tradition, and each one is special and significant in it's own way.

A few years ago, I was given the most spectacular present. When my ancestors left Russia at the turn of the last century, they carried everything they owned with them on their backs. Little did I know that many of the things they carried were their own pieces of jewelry, Judaica, books, and clothes. As I was sitting with my grandmother and parents one day, my grandmother brought out a very large box. In it was the biggest, most beautiful silver menorah I had ever seen. And it was for me. One side had been broken and restored and in the middle of a small Jewish star in the center was the Hebrew word "Tzion" (Zion). As I held the Menorah in my hands and listened to it's story, I felt a sense of connection - connection to my family members who carried this thousands of miles over a hundred years ago, connection to those whose hands had passed it down to me and where they came from, and connection to the unknown future that lay before me. This Menorah made me really feel a sense of tradition and helped me understand my important contribution as a link on that chain.

So every year now, I light candles on my "family" Menorah. It's my own tradition. And every year as I light it, I think about everything that it represents - to the Jews, to my family, and to me. And it's nice to know that even though my own traditions have started, or changed, they'll always be an electric menorah with bright orange lights sitting in a windowsill against the dark winter night, burning ever brightly....

Happy Chanukah!

What are your family traditions????

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Generosity of Spirit

I've always been so interested in the human condition - the human spirit. As a rabbi (and a daughter, sister, friend, etc) I interact with all different types of people in a myriad of different ways. But the one thing I notice about all of these interactions, and all of these relationships, is the need for human connection.
Whether it's the congregant who comes into my office with one question and then ends up talking to me for 45 minutes, or it's a phone call from an old friend, or even a connection with someone online (the power of social networking is something, isn't it?!!?) everyone is seeking the same thing - to be heard and understood and cared for by another.
In Martin Buber's famous "I and Thou" he writes: "Through the Thou a person becomes I" meaning that we can truly understand ourselves best in relation to another. We gain better knowledge of who WE are when we interact with others, lean on them, support them, love them, guide them, and share experiences with them. We are not meant to be creatures that exist in isolation.

One of the things I've noticed most, over the last few weeks, about others is the generosity of spirit that many people have. Most people want connection. Most people want to say and do the right thing and be a good person. Most people want to have good relationships and friendships and feel like they've contributed to society. But generosity of spirit is something beyond all this - it's an extra step further. It's going out of your way to help another, or to lend support, or to offer a kind word when unprovoked. Lately, I've been trying to open my eyes to the people around me. And what I'm noticing is really beautiful - so many of them have such generous spirits. It's inspiring....every day.

All of us want and need something beyond ourselves. That's why many of us drift to religion - to seek a greater power (God, Holy Spirit, Source, The Divine) that can help us better understand ourselves and better understand the world. For isn't that one of the most sacred relationships we can ever have?

The human condition is fascinating - just look around you, and you'll see what I mean.