The Sweet and the Bitter: Finding an Answer to Chanukah’s Question

December 08, 2023

by Sara Bellin

In my home, winter and the season of Chanukah means gingerbread. Not gingerbread houses or gingerbread men, but heavy dough rolled out on baking sheets and cut on the diagonal, or shaped into round balls and stamped flat, dusted with sugar. Hot gingerbread is wrapped in paper napkins and we walk out into the neighborhood streets. We count the shining menorahs in the windows and admire the twinkly lights. We eat and talk and enjoy and, even in the cold night, we are warm. There is a sense of wonder in those moments. We delight in simple things like fresh air, sparkling houses, fleecy snow boots that keep feet warm in the cold Boston night. And of course the gingerbread, hot in our hands and nibbled as we walk until not a crumb is left.

But if there is something you should know before biting into a piece of my gingerbread, it is this: it tends to bite back. This is not bakery gingerbread, honey-colored and crispy, ready for icing and candy buttons. It is dark, thick with molasses and biting with ginger root. It is sweet but not too sweet. It is pleasure deepened with memory. It feels stereotypical to tell you that as Jews, joy rarely exists without a tinge of pain, but I do think it is true. We are used to a hint of bitterness, and happiness is sweeter because of the memories of more difficult times. We live and celebrate, have weddings and have babies, and each moment is made more poignant because of what we remember, not just in our own families but in the collective memory of our people. In moments of prosperity and safety, something in us believes that we must live it not only for ourselves, but for those who came before us, who prayed and worked through those long dark nights for better times.

This year, the metaphorical night feels dark indeed. Israel is at war and I anxiously and compulsively follow the news and the fickle arc of public opinion, hour by hour. The children held in the depths of Gaza are mirrored in the faces of my own son and daughter. They eat a delicacy I made with my hands and my love, wrapped in their warm down coats and sure of the welcome of their own beds at the end of a happy day. Sometimes the contrast is too much to bear. The joy and the pain are bound together.

And it’s into this time of heartbreak, fear and uncertainty that Chanukah comes. Chanukah asks us to remember that there is no darkness so impervious to light that it lasts forever. To a heart that is broken, to hands that yearn to heal and help, this can feel like a cruel request. How can we, still raw, begin to imagine a world again filled with light and sweetness? What does that look like, when we have not yet even begun the healing? And Chanukah answers, it looks like one tiny light at a time. Lit with joy and also, yes, with wrenching pain. We move forward.

So I prepare for another Chanukah season. I purchase and duly hide the gifts. I track down Chanukah wrapping paper and the kids roll the colorful beeswax candles. Chanukah music plays in the car on the way to school and home again, and we count down the days until the first candle can be lit. And it hurts. And it helps. And each day finds us different as our hearts and minds and bodies struggle to hold all that this moment asks of us. And we do our best to move forward.

If you were here next to me, I would reach out my hand to you. I would say, come walk with me awhile. Here is a hot cookie wrapped in a paper napkin. It will help, and it will also hurt a little. There is sweetness and there is bitterness but I can promise you that you will not feel alone. Walk with me, and we will look for the light together. We will carry the pain together until this particular night passes. And tomorrow I will be here to remember with you.

Sara Bellin is a non-profit program manager and freelance writer in the Boston area. By day she engages with contemporary challenges in Jewish education, and then pulls up her chair again at home to write articles relating to Jewish lifestyle, identity and values. Bellin lives in Brookline with her husband, son, and daughter.

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