03 December 2013

Hanukah Day Six: Troubles and Triumphs

I wish war was as funny as Duck Soup.  Seriously.

And it certainly isn't latkes, jelly donuts, and gorgeous dreamy candle lights, burning low, winter hymned to waxy oblivion.

War is painful.  Dreadfully so.

Here's Ivor Gurney (1890-1937):

Pain, pain continual; pain unending;
Hard even to the roughest, but to those
Hungry for beauty...Not the wisest knows,
Nor most pitiful-hearted, what the wending
Of one hour's way meant.  Grey monotony lending
Weight to the grey skies, grey mud where goes
An army of grey bedrenched scarecrows in rows
Careless at last of cruelest Fate-sending.
Seeing the pitiful eyes of men foredone,
Or horses shot, too tired merely to stir,
Dying in the shell-holes both, slain by the mud.
Men broken, shrieking even to hear a gun. --
Till pain grinds down, or lethargy numbs her,
The amazed heart cries angrily out to God.

There's a reason the rabbis of the Talmud downplayed Hanukah.  It's reality is too bellicose.  To celebrate the religiosity of revolution and death is fundamentally dangerous.  So rather than reveal and expose the "pitiful eyes of men foredone," the Sages decided that the Hanukah miracle was light--pure, refined oil, lost then found, rededicated and burned beyond its allotted time.  "It happened there."  You'd have to see it to believe it.

In his amazing literary history of the First World War, Geoff Dyer writes that much of the war's first writing was an act of remembrance, written before the war began, "a work not of remembrance but of anticipation, or more accurately, the anticipation of remembrance: a foreseeing that is also a determining."

I have been thinking of this so much this Hanukah.  The Jewish spirit.  The inexorable rush to remembrance as an anticipatory forward gesture.  Looking forward to Hanukah to tell the stories of past triumphs, to gird our loins for future ones.  Looking forward to Passover to tell the stories of triumph over tyranny, to strengthen ourselves for future oppressions.  To live bound by a past, and in its memorial encoding, generating an ability to break the chains, victorious, at a known past but as yet unforeseen and certain future.

Dyer movingly writes, "I remember John Berger in a lecture suggesting that ours has been the century of departure, of migration, of exodus--of disappearance.  'The century of people helplessly seeing others, who were close to them, disappear over the horizon.'"

The pogroms and dislocations of Eastern Europe.  The rise of Nazism, mass deportation, and Holocaust.  The painful threat of extinction and fight for survival in the reclaiming of a homeland.  What for Berger may very well be a 'century of departure,' has for the Jew been both departure and arrival.  Always both.  The very paradoxical definition of Jewishness.  Perfect in its contradiction.

I saw my friend Adam tonight at the Hanukah celebration at CBE.  He told me about the haftarah he chanted at his bar mitzvah, more than 30 years ago, in the spring; and how its words from Zechariah--"not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit saith the Lord of hosts" is also the haftarah for the Shabbat of Hanukah.  His oldest daughter, now 9, was born during Hanukah.  And tonight they agreed that when she became Bat Mitzvah in a few years, she's chant the same words as her dad did, more than 30 years ago.

"That's so cool," he said, bursting with pride.

He smiled, took another bite of his latke, eyed a jelly donut.  Behind him the candles on the menorah burned bright.

War isn't funny, that's true.  But life, and how we remember our troubles and triumphs, is uncommonly beautiful.

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