A Freilichen Chanukah

Tonight, the eight-night festival of Chanukah begins. It’s a well known but relatively minor Jewish holiday, and despite its less significant status (when compared to any of the Yom Tovim), I find that it is rich with meaning and beauty. Even long before I was observant, I had a Chanukiah at home, which we displayed each year to mark the holiday, and thinking back to years past, when Chanukah was often fraught with tension, arguments, and stress, I find myself- for the first time in my life- looking forwards to Chanukah.

I’m under no illusions that it will be a “perfect holiday”. In fact, I’m fairly certain that there’s no such thing. I am sure that between trying to remember which order I light the candles in, laughing at the Feta doughnuts recipe on Chabad.org, and attempting to get everyone in the room so we can light the menorah, there will be times when I feel irritated and harried, and I may even say something along the lines of “Why on earth is Chanukah so stressful when it’s not even a Yom Tov?!”.

But at the end of the day, I’m spending Chanukah with my family and friends. For the first time ever, I’m actually going to Chanukah events and Menorah lightings rather than sitting at home, labouring over the latkes which no one will eat. And just as I was losing faith, I found myself inspired by a modern day Chanukah miracle which made my year. Right now, at least, I feel blessed, as I celebrate the festival of lights with those who bring light into my life.

A Freilichen Chanukah to each and every one of you….


Good Yom Tov!

Tonight, as we celebrate Yud Tes Kislev- the Rosh Hashono of Chassidism- we remember the liberation of the Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, from imprisonment in Czarist Russia, and the subsequent strengthening of the Chabad movement, as the Rebbe redoubled his efforts to spread Chassidic teachings, and make them accessible to everyone.

Out of all of the special days on the Jewish calendar, Yud Tes Kislev speaks to me the most. There’s something so inspiring about the Alter Rebbe’s story- in a way, it appeals directly to my emotions and my Jewish journey. When I first became interested in Judaism, and decided to become frum, I found myself held back by my family and living situation. I was very much ‘imprisoned’, and I found it really hard to do the things I wanted to do. Spiritually, I was weakened by the negative influences around me.

During this difficult time, I read about the Alter Rebbe, and I learned that after his imprisonment, he didn’t back down; instead, he upped his game, and started working harder than ever to spread Jewish knowledge. The more I thought about it, the more inspired I felt. It was on Yud Tes Kislev last year that I received news which changed my life, and I decided straightaway that this was no mere coincidence. It was Hasgocho Protis.

Last Yud Tes Kislev, my life turned around, just as the Alter Rebbe’s had, so many years before me. And this year, as I look back over what I’ve been through, I daven that all those people who, like me, are held back by their circumstances, and find themselves spiritually ‘imprisoned’, witness the sort of miracle which Hashem bestowed upon me, and find the strength to continue their Jewish journey. May this be the Divine will, and may we merit to welcome the Moshiach, speedily and in our days!





The Key

I remember sitting
In an antiseptic hall
Staring through the skylight
Wondering how I could get out.
Much later I got out
Of that very same room,
Not through the door;
Not through the window;
Certainly not through the roof.
The way out lay in my hands-
I held the key to another world:
The key to the Heavens above.
It’s not a metal key-
It doesn’t shine and glimmer.
It’s large, flat, leather bound,
We tend to call it a prayer book.
But it’s more than that.
It’s my refuge.
My happy place.
My key.
I unlock the door to Shamayim,
I let my words flow freely.
I am alone with the One Above,
The One I love,
The One who listens,
As I sit,
In the antiseptic hall.
Clock ticking,
Minds whirring,
Life carrying on all around me.
But I don’t move.
I stay fixed.
For in my hand, I hold the key.

Doing Chanukah Differently

Those of you who use social media are probably inundated with Facebook posts, Instagram photos, and witty tweets capturing the magic of Chanukah. Between recipes, adverts, and countless photos of other people’s cooking, it’s easy to feel panicked by the rapidly approaching holiday. But maybe, you don’t have to feel this way.

Every year, I say the same things to myself. This year, I won’t run myself into debt buying Chanukah gifts and food. This year, I won’t worry about the little things like menus and table decorations. This year, I’ll appreciate the fact that Chanukah is a meaningful holiday and not simply synonymous with gifts and food. And every year, I find myself running around like a headless chicken, tearing my hair out over how much money I’ve spent and the fact that all the other women on Facebook have already started cooking for *next* Chanukah and here I am without even a menu plan to my name.

Then this year, I decided that I was going to start doing Chanukah differently.

I looked at what had made the previous Chanukahs so difficult- miserable, even- for me. I think I spent too much money trying to win the affection of those around me, I realised. Chanukah isn’t really about gifts, and I was attempting to use gifts to make my family and friends choose Chanukah over the “other December holiday”, perhaps even trying to get them to like me more.

Then there was the food. All the time spent cooking “traditional” dishes which my family didn’t actually like. Day after day, year after year, they pushed my latkes around their plates before discreetly throwing them away, on top of whatever else it was I had laboured over in the hope that just this once, we’d have a “proper Chanukah”.

It followed the same pattern every year. I would begin Chanukah super organised, telling myself that this year, it would all go according to plan and I would have a happy family and a perfect Chanukah. By day three, I would have given up on the whole idea and spend the rest of the week alone, often in bed, crying about how it “all went wrong”. Some people just don’t learn. Until this year. This year, I learnt.

I learnt that no matter how much money I spend, it’s up to my family and friends whether or not they want to celebrate Chanukah. It’s no good plying people with gifts in an attempt to change their minds. I learnt that it wasn’t my job to prepare beautiful traditional dishes like the other women on Facebook did, if it came at the cost of shalom bayis and my own happiness. And above all, I learnt that a large part of my enjoyment of Chanukah came from who I spent it with.

When I cut my Chanukah gift budget in half, I also cut off the people who made the holiday stressful. Because, despite the number of times I told myself that true happiness came from within, and that Chanukah isn’t supposed to be this materialistic, I realised that it’s pretty much impossible to be happy when your efforts are being thrown back in your face. And when I took this step, and made plans with genuinely good people, I found that for the first time in my life I was genuinely looking forward to Chanukah.

Next week, you’ll find me with the people who truly care, as I look into the flickering lights of the Menorah and realise how lucky I am. Because even though Chanukah commemorates a certain miracle of oil, there’s no reason why I can’t recall the other miracles in my life- including the fact that this year, I won’t have to make latkes…

Good Enough

One day, a man approached the Kotzker Rebbe and asked him, “Who is a good Jew?”. The Kotzker Rebbe replied, “anyone who wants to be a good Jew.” The student was perplexed: “But Rebbe, who wouldn’t want to be a good Jew?”. “That’s easy,” said the Kotzker, “someone who thinks he’s a good Jew already.”

When I read this Chassidic tale I felt torn. On the one hand, I understood the underlying message: we should never settle, or say, “that’s good enough”. But on the other hand, the Kotzker’s words brought out the painful feelings of never being good enough. Essentially, he seems to be saying that we shouldn’t consider ourselves good Jews just yet- and I wonder how healthy that approach is.

I’ve spent most of my Jewish journey feeling inadequate. Whether it was because I was too frum for the reform shul, or not frum enough for the orthodox shul, whether it was because of the way I davened or the level of kashrus I kept- I felt that I was never quite good enough, maybe even some sort of impostor in a world of Proper Jews.

Recently, I’ve come to terms with where I am on my Jewish journey. And so I felt shocked when I first saw the Kotzker’s words. Does this mean that after all this time spent learning and struggling and improving myself, I’m not actually a good Jew? The more I looked, the more unlikely it seemed. Perhaps there’s a delicate nuance between being good enough, and settling for “that’s good enough”.

Maybe we are all good Jews, deep down. Maybe everyone who tries, in some small way, is a good Jew. Maybe what the Kotzker is saying, is that we should never compromise when it comes to Yiddishkeit. If we can do better, we must. If we can improve ourselves, we need to. For it is in self improvement that we find the greatest kind of growth, whereas seeing ourselves as “not good enough” only ever leads to feelings of inadequacy.

It’s interesting to see how much this short story made me think: about myself, about my Yiddishkeit, about whether I’m good enough. For the first time in my life, I feel like I’m a good enough person, maybe even a good enough Jew. But there are many ways in which I can improve, and I think that’s what the Kotzker Rebbe was telling me to do.

The Train Station

Today I sat still,
On a mossy platform,
As trains went past,
Whizzing, whirring,
Sparks flying,
Packed with people,
Going nowhere fast.
Either side of me,
At 100 miles per hour.
And then, in the midst of it all,
My Siddur.
Everything slowed,
As the words crept from my lips,
“Shema Yisroel…”.
And in that moment,
Everyone stopped and listened,
Then the chaos resumed.
And I was left sitting,
At peace,
With Hashem.

Yaakov’s Prayers

It took a long time for me to start davening regularly. Until I got my own siddur, my prayer routine was restricted to Shabbes- but that all changed when I discovered the beauty of Ma’ariv, the evening prayer service, and started davening every evening, a habit which has continued to this day. For a long time, I wondered why I found myself so drawn to it. Before I even started saying the Modeh Ani every morning, or the Shema last thing at night, I was fascinated by Ma’ariv, seemingly inexplicably. Why did it speak to me in such an extraordinary way?

This week, as we read Parshas Vayeitzei, we learn that Yaakov prayed after he fled to Charan, escaping his brother Esov’s wrath. It was through this that he instituted the Ma’ariv prayers, just as Avrohom and Yitzchok had done before him with Shachoris and Mincha respectively. The Rebbe explains the meaning behind this, saying, “There is a great difference between praying during the day and praying at night. During the day, the sun is shining. The light and brightness of the physical setting is representative of its spiritual backdrop. Day refers to times and situations where G‑dliness is apparent. That’s when Avrohom and Yitzchok prayed. Yaakov, by contrast, prayed at night, metaphorically, when G‑dliness is hidden and one must combat darkness“.

Suddenly, my own attraction to Ma’ariv made sense. When I began davening at home, after I was gifted my first Siddur, I was in a place of darkness. Not just physically, as the nights became longer, but emotionally, as I dealt with various upheavals and traumas in my own personal life. And during that difficult time, it was especially hard to face the cold winter nights, when I felt especially alone and unloved by the world in general. Opening my siddur brought me comfort when I was most desperate for it, and it was as I davened Ma’ariv that I would pour my heart out to Hashem, begging Him to help me find happiness, leaving me convinced that things would change for the better.

I have never underestimated the power of a little bit of light during a time of darkness. And today, as I read the Rebbe’s explanation for Yaakov’s prayers, I realised why Ma’ariv was so important to me, when I was dealing with both metaphorical and physical darkness.