One of my favorite things about this season is tuning into National Public Radio’s Chanukah Lights, one of the most successful NPR special programs over the past 30 years. The concept is simple: an hour-long program of stories about Chanukah broadcast during the Jewish holiday. As many of you know, Chanukah is a minor holiday, not even recorded in the Jewish bible! But living in the United States, Chanukah is the most widely observed Jewish holiday behind Passover and Yom Kippur.
NPR’s Chanukah Lights got me thinking about sharing stories at this time of year and I want to share with you a good one — a true story about Natan Sharansky, whom most of you know as a former powerful Israeli Politician and former chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel.
Sharansky was born in the Soviet Union and became known as one of the founders of and spokesmen for the Jewish and Refusenik movements in Moscow.
In March 1977, he was arrested, and in July 1978, convicted on charges of treason and spying for the United States and sentenced to 13 years of forced labor. After 16 months of incarceration, he was sent to a Siberian labor camp, where he served for nine years. The fate of Sharansky and other political prisoners in the USSR — repeatedly brought to international attention by Western human rights groups and diplomats — was a cause of embarrassment and irritation for the Soviet authorities. In 1986, he was released to East Germany and led across a bridge to West Berlin where he was exchanged for a pair of Soviet spies. Famed for his resistance in the Gulag, he was told upon his release to walk straight towards his freedom; Sharansky instead walked in a zigzag in a final act of defiance.
In 1986, Congress granted him the Congressional Gold Medal. In 2006, President George W. Bush awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom at a Chanukah reception at the White House. After the event, Sharansky attended a reception at the Israeli embassy, where he told a story about one particular Chanukah he had spent in prison.
During the year in question, Sharansky celebrated the first few nights of Chanukah with some non-Jewish prisoners who helped him create a menorah and some candles. However, eventually the prison guards confiscated his menorah and candles, and he was forbidden to celebrate the holiday further on the theory that a prison is not a synagogue. Sharansky promptly went on a hunger strike. He told the audience that he wouldn’t have done so if he had not already started celebrating the holiday, but once you exercise a freedom you cannot give it back.
Fortunately, the prison officials were expecting the visit of state inspectors from Moscow and did not want Sharansky to be on a hunger strike when the visitors arrived. So, the head of the prison asked him what it would take to get him to stop. Sharansky said he would eat only if he were allowed to celebrate the one remaining night of Chanukah. Sharansky also insisted that he be permitted to do it in the chief’s office (a much warmer place than Sharansky’s freezing quarters), that the chief bow his head while Sharansky prayed and that he say “amen” with Sharansky at the end. The chief asked how long this would take. Sharansky assured him it would not take long.
The chief agreed and the menorah appeared. Sharansky then said a lengthy prayer, part of which he made up, and which he repeated to keep the service going as long as possible. Since he was praying in Hebrew, the prison chief didn’t realize that Sharansky was repeating himself. Soon wax from the candles was dripping onto the chief’s beautiful desk.
At the end, Sharansky prayed that he would soon be able to celebrate Chanukah with his family in Jerusalem and added, “May the day come when all our enemies, who today plan our destruction, will stand before us and hear our prayers and say ‘amen.’” On cue, the chief, relieved that the service had finally ended, echoed “Amen.”
As we celebrate the end of Chanukah, may we take with us a story, a story of the Maccabees, or the story of Natan Sharansky, or your own personal Chanukah story, offered as hope that its light will stay with us long past the holiday season. JN
Rabbi Jeremy Schneider is the spiritual leader of Temple Kol Ami in Scottsdale, and vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Phoenix.