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This Dark Hanukkah, a Lesson in Radical Optimism From My Anarchist Grandmother

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The sister of Samar Khatib, who was murdered, holds up her photo to protest violence against women, Tel Aviv, December 4, 2018
The sister of Samar Khatib, who was murdered, holds up her photo to protest violence against women, Tel Aviv, December 4, 2018Credit: Moti Milrod

The darker it is at Hanukkah – the more vicious, callous, dystopic this world gets – the more clearly I can see the face of my grandmother, who died when I was young, and who was an anarchist.

She didn't like holidays. At all. Not American holidays, and not Jewish ones. But she liked Hanukkah. Hannukah, for some reason, was hers.

You can see her in the picture of my graduation from Carpenter Avenue elementary school. She's sitting in the back, a dour and tiny woman, tough as nails, tough to like, already being killed by the cancer that would take her within the year.

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Terrible things had happened in her life, and they were still there in her eyes, austere as stone. Except at Hanukkah. Her eyes softened, allowed us to see what she must have looked like when she was young. On Hanukkah, her eyes, I now recognize, took on light.

Here was this woman who, years ahead of her time, did not believe in marriage, patriarchy, nationalism, religion, commercialism, or eating animals. She even named her only daughter Nora, from Ibsen's A Doll's House, hoping that she would think independently, and rebel.

But there was something about Hanukkah that Grandma Ashi did believe in, something that she needed us to know, though we were too small at the time, and maybe too American, to hear it.

Those eyes of hers, rekindled in the Hanukkah lights, saw something in the future which, only now, a grandparent myself, I am beginning to understand:

There are times so dark, that the most radical act you can perform, is optimism.


Every night the candles are gone, burned down to nothing. And the next day there are more of them. And then there is more light than the day before. The light is stronger.

Yes, it gets dark in between, my Grandma Ashi was trying to tell us. That's when you have to believe in the next day.

The true miracle of Hanukkah is not that a pitcher of oil lasted for eight days. Nor that a small band of guerrillas once defeated a much larger army. Or that one group of Jews triumphed over another in a civil war. As my grandmother's own battles with her Orthodox parents showed, Jews have been at civil war with one another – whether over religion, culture, gender, politics - intellectually, at times violently, for thousands of years now. 

No. The true miracle of Hanukkah is tikvat hinam, baseless optimism, hope without just cause.

This very day, I am seeing the might and the wisdom in what my grandma was trying to get us to grasp.

Today, women throughout Israel, women of many colors and cultures and creeds, are leading an unprecedented movement to seek for themselves what the government has proven itself unwilling to grant.

Thousands of women, and men as well, are in the streets stopping traffic, massing at rallies, striking to push for a nationwide program to counter the plague of domestic violence against women, and the horrific murders of women by their husbands, ex-husbands, and boyfriends.

These women are the embodiment of the Hanukkah song, "Banu Hoshech L'Garesh," which begins, in translation, "We have come to banish the darkness."

In the next line, the song describes the essence of radical optimism: "In our hands are light and fire."

At the newspaper where I work, as in countless other sites across Israel, the staff poured into and blocked the street outside the front door for 24 minutes this morning – commemorating, in this small country, the deaths of 24 women murdered this year alone.

A surprising number of the truck and taxi drivers who ply the busy street responded with support and patience. One who did not, though, left his car in an effort to bludgeon and curse the staff back inside.

The invective poured out of him. Twenty-four straight minutes of it.

Using Hebrew and Arabic alternately, he called the women sluts and whores. He used the word "zevel" - trash or feces -  for everyone. And for the men who formed a barrier between him and women protesters, the raging man shifted to attacking their masculinity, calling them, to their face, men who are at once weak and homosexual, by using the word "motzetz," a version of c---sucker.

When his stream failed to move anyone, he tried, without success, to get other drivers to join him. In a discordant echo of the song, he shouted: "L'Garesh otam!" – "banish them!"

That word again. L'Garesh. That small word laden with enormous emotional and political and interpersonal charge. That word which also means to cast out, to exile, to divorce, to deport.

No one moved.

My Grandma Ashi would have been proud.

Those people in the streets, all over the country this Hanukkah - they are the light. The fire is inside them.

Their hope, their optimism, their refusal to quit, is what will  banish the darkness. They understand the radical humanity of their actions. To banish darkness, rather than people.

Their eyes have adjusted to the darkness. Like my Grandma Ashi's.

They are the miracle.

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