I went to my synagogue for Hanukkah tonight. I have read but am not well versed in the unofficial history of the Holiday–1st and 2nd Maccabees. Currently, I am reading Thomas Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers. Doing both activities reminds me of my first experience with scripture–the real Bible, albeit the Protestant one–as a child. Grandma Alderson used to read me Esther and Daniel as a child. Without commenting on Daniel, Esther became a favorite book of mine. A stepmother said once while sick as a child I asked that Esther be read to me. She commented on the sagacity with which I spoke “very adult questions.” Yet I have trouble believing I had more than an average child’s insights. The point is that growing up on the Bible, I learned how to pray as a Jew, albeit inadvertently. Perhaps it put down the ground work for my reading Thomas Mann as an adult. Why?
Perhaps because when a person reads Holy Texts, or has them read to them, they learn to explain the world around them using the Scriptures. They also learn the art of literacy from them, because the Bible has an unusual cadence, with the English translations echoing the Hebrew, through which God speaks to God’s people. Ironically, Thomas Mann in his last Masterpiece, tries to communicate his feelings for the Bible in words more sophisticated psychologically than the Bible–but not more profound.
I picked my Hebrew name “Hadassah” as Esther’s Hebrew name. This was because though there are many pious women in the scriptures, I remembered the Persian Jewish Queen from those stories as a child as the first spark regarding which I understood Judaism. Of course, I will not be celebrating the scroll of Esther until Purim. Instead I am celebrating a military battle the Jewish people won against the Greeks. Yet the two holidays both celebrate Jewish heroism and peoplehood.
I want to believe that on my very worst days as a child (and as a depressed child I could be awful) I still sympathized with the Jewish cause and wanted to believe in its God. I never fully understand my Grandma’s anti-Semitism (or anti-Catholicism, for that matter), but I guess if there was good in Grandma it was because she read my children’s stories and Biblical stories as a child. Of course, some of those Biblical stories included her version of the Christian Book of Revelations. Yet for all that there was dark in those troubled times, there was light, too.
In Hanukkah we celebrate light. For me “light” is a symbol of knowledge, especially spiritual light. A person who finds the light can survive anything and move on.