Every winter and spring, when Father Tom Hartman — my former partner on the God Squad — was well and writing this column with me, we would trade spiritual places. I would write a column about why I love Christmas and Easter, and Tommy would write on why he loves Hanukkah and Passover.
Although Tommy is now disabled due to advanced Parkinson's disease, God has granted me the blessing of continuing to be abled. So this Hanukkah, which begins Tuesday evening with the lighting of the first candle on the Hanukkah menorah, I offer my vivid remembrances of the things Tommy loved about Hanukkah.
The following words are mine, but they're a true rendition of things Father Tom told me often and still live in my heart at this season of light and hope:
'I love Hanukkah because I love families, and I love lights, and I love food, and I love presents, but mostly I love God, and Hanukkah has it all. I love Marc and his family, and every Hanukkah I celebrate at least one night of Hanukkah at his home with his family. We light the menorahs, and those little lights remind me of the lights on my Christmas tree. It just seems so spiritually right that at the darkest time of the year, we light lights to remind us that the sun will grow stronger over time, and so God's love can grow stronger as well. We sing songs about dreidels, and they're good, but, frankly, Christmas has Hanukkah beat in the song department! I love latkes, the fried potato pancakes that are the traditional Hanukkah food. I don't know why they are so good, but I love them, so I don't care. Marc eats latkes with sour cream, and I eat them with applesauce. This may be because Marc's family comes from Russia, while mine (on my father's side) comes from Germany. Marc has tried over the years to convert me to sour cream but has utterly failed, yet somehow our love for each other has survived this unbridgeable chasm.
"I love the story of Hanukkah, which is the story of courage in defending the idea of one God in the face of idolatry. The Maccabees' story (which includes the Jewish festival of Hanukkah) is in the Apocrypha, which is part of the Christian Bible (between the Old and New Testaments). Hanukkah is truly the bridge between the two Testaments and between Judaism and Christianity.
"Almost 200 years before Christ, one family led a revolt that preserved Judaism so that it was alive and thriving when Jesus was born into it. If they'd failed, who knows what kind of world Jesus might have inherited at the turn of the millennium.
"So I'm thankful for Hanukkah not only because it's the holiday of my best friend, but also because it's the historical hyphen in the Judeo-Christian tradition that has shaped our world and given it my Savior.
"I love Hanukkah because it brings families together, like all great holidays of every faith. One of the things I love about Judaism is how deeply its rituals are rooted not only in the synagogue but also in the home. The family is the building block of society and of faith, and seeing Marc's family gathered together gives me hope not only for the survival of Judaism in the world, but also for the survival of God in the world.
"I also love Hanukkah because it's about miracles, and I believe in miracles. The oil sufficient only for one day that burned for eight days is the famous Hanukkah miracle, but it's not the only one. The triumph of the few over the many, the weak over the strong and the dispersed over the world's greatest empire are also Hanukkah miracles.
"Miracles for me are not just things that cannot happen, but happen anyway. Miracles are the triumph of hope over cynicism. Miracles are the triumph of courage over fear and the triumph of love over hatred. We needed the old miracles because they remind us there are more miracles yet to be. For me, the greatest miracle yet to come will be the return of the Messiah (my words) or the arrival of the Messiah (Marc's words).
"Either way, the light of God's salvation miracles will come to us again, I pray. And at the great celebratory feast on that day, I've told Marc that I'm still going to have applesauce on my latkes! To all my Jewish friends, I wish you and your families and friends a Happy Hanukkah!"