A Hanukah Gift from my Grandparents

Headshot of Gail Labovitz
Headshot of Gail Labovitz
Rabbi Gail Labovitz, PhD

Professor, Rabbinic Studies
Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies

Rabbi Gail Labovitz, PhD, is Associate Professor of Rabbinic Literature and former Chair of the Department of Rabbinics for the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. She also enjoys serving as the Ziegler School’s faculty advisor for “InterSem,” a dialogue program for students training for religious leadership at Jewish and Christian seminaries around the Los Angeles area. Dr. Labovitz formerly taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS) and the Academy for Jewish Religion in New York. Prior to joining the faculty at AJU, Dr. Labovitz worked as the Senior Research Analyst in Judaism for the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project at Brandeis University, and as the Coordinator for the Jewish Women’s Research Group, a project of the Women’s Studies Program at JTS. Rabbi Labovitz is also preparing a teshuva (rabbinic responsum) for consideration by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly on whether a person who is unable to fast for medical reasons may nonetheless serve as a leader of communal prayer on Yom Kippur.

posted on December 15, 2012
Torah Reading
Haftarah Reading
Maftir Reading

I never knew my paternal grandfather, Rabbi Jerome Labovitz (Jewish Theological Seminary, rabbinic class of 1931), who died at age 50, when my father was only 17 years old. But I am fortunate to have received, through my grandmother, nee Leah Gittel Siegel (who was very much in my life and lived into her 90's), a number of books that were his and theirs. Among these books is one with the simple title "Hanukkah," a collection compiled and edited by Emily Solis-Cohen in 1937; the copy I now possess is from the sixth imprint, in 1955. I pulled it off the shelf this afternoon to help me find inspiration for this drash, and in doing so, an unexpected gift fell (metaphorically) into my lap.

As I opened it, I first found that my grandfather's name is written on the first blank page inside the cover. Underneath that is also my grandmother's signature, which must be from some time rather later than 1955 or my grandfather's death, since she includes her last name from her third marriage (she outlived all three husbands, if you were wondering...). Although I'm not an expert in handwriting analysis, I'm pretty sure both names were written in one handwriting, and that that handwriting is hers, rather than his. I surmise this because also tucked into the book is a flyer from the Volusia County Library Center that has been repurposed as paper for a series of notes, the contents of which I'll come back to momentarily. A quick Google search reveals that Volusia County is in Florida and encompasses Daytona Beach, where my grandmother and her third husband - who was, for all intents and purposes, the grandfather of my childhood - lived for a number of years. Hence it is nearly certain that the notes, and most likely also the names inside the book, were written by her.

The book also contains underlining in two of the essays, one on "Judaism and Hellenism" (by Milton Steinberg), and the other on "Hanukkah and its History" (by Solomon Grayzel). In this case, I have no way of knowing whether it was my grandmother or my grandfather who took note of these passages. A part of me would very much like it to have been my grandfather, so that I could have a little glimpse of this man who so shaped who I am and my life choices even though I never knew him in person. But on another level, it doesn't matter - to take this book off my shelf and to discover these notes inside, whichever grandparent is responsible for them, is to discover a surprise gift from one or both of them, a gift from beyond the usual constraints of time and space since both have now passed on to the next world.

So what is in my grandmother's handwritten notes, and what sections of the essays caught the attention of the grandparent who read them? Intriguingly, I see a common theme in the notes and the underlining, whether intended or not. First, my grandmother's notes actually do not concern Hanukkah - rather, they are a series of jottings about the history and customs of another winter festival, Christmas. More particularly, the notes seem to concentrate on the pagan and folk origins of many popular practices and symbols that surround the celebration of Christmas - such as Yule logs and candles, trees, holly, wreathes, and commonly eaten foods.

As for the underlined passages, they seem to pick up on two inter-connected ideas in the essays. The first of these is the distinction between the Jewish world view, and that of Greek culture, and its sympathizers, in antiquity. As was perhaps typical of the time, Steinberg's essay is shot through with apologetics and triumphalism, declaring the superiority of the Jewish way, and the underlining follows suit, picking up on passages like:

"In the first place, the Greek world had no living religion"(9);
"Of equal weight in impelling the Jew's rejection of Hellenism was his awareness of a profound difference in morals between the two worlds" (10);
"the Greek world was entirely without a sense of reverence for the sanctity of life... Greek society was founded upon violence" (11).

Relatedly, some of the underlined sentences from Grayzel's article address the significance of the Maccabean victory for the freedom of Jews to worship Jewishly, and the survival and endurance of Jewish living and the Jewish world-view:

"Religious freedom had been attained, but, whether the Jews realized it or not, that was not all they had fought for... [the Hellenizers] had not yet learned that Judaism had vitality beyond their strength to extinguish"(37);
"Hanukkah, then, came to represent the survival of Jewish culture, and the continuance of Jewish life, a symbol of the unswerving obedience of the Jew to God and to the Torah" (46).

Did my grandmother take her notes about Christmas while attending a lecture on this topic? Or in preparation for a presentation, perhaps to her Hadassah chapter? Could it have been that my grandfather underlined passages in preparation for a sermon? Once again, I have no way of knowing.

 And yet, when the notes and the themes drawn out of the two essays are put together, I imagine a set of inter-related questions emerging, one that speaks to what it means to be a Jew not only in antiquity, but all the more so in modern American and Western societies – in 1955, in the mid-1970’s or early 1980’s when my grandmother was living in Florida, and still also in 2012.  What does it mean to be a Jew in a society dominated by other, different religious traditions?  How does Judaism survive – or even thrive – in a multi-cultural milieu, without being swallowed up into the larger culture?  How far can we go in learning about and appreciating our neighbors’ traditions and customs without losing what is unique and distinctive about our own?  Do we need to be able to say our tradition is “best,” or can we create a community of religious equality freedom for all?  Does our Judaism “have vitality beyond the strength of outside forces to extinguish”?

This Hanukkah, I appreciate this unexpected gift from my forbearers, to know that their questions and challenges and struggles for the sake of Heaven are mine too, that they have passed them on to me, and that so far the chain continues.

Shabbat Shalom and hag urim sameah!