Decades ago, a volume titled Bar Mitzvah Treasury: The Jewish Heritage as Set Down in History, Legend and Essay broadly circulated. My wife owns a copy (seventh printing!), presented to her by the synagogue Sisterhood on the occasion of her bat mitzvah. The book, edited by Azriel Eisenberg and published by Behrman House, opens with a short story, “What is Your Name?” by Harold Friedman.
The story begins with the narrator recounting an experience of his childhood. He relates that he was in a large department store with his mother at Hanukkah time and, somehow, got lost. At first, he was frightened and began to cry. A store manager took his hand and asked: “What is your name?” When the child confidently said his name he was no longer frightened; “I knew my name, so I wasn’t lost any more.”
The narrator proceeds to describe something similar that happened at school. His elementary school teacher asked students in the class to share something about where their parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents came from. One student told of Ireland and sang an Irish lullaby; another student shared some interesting things about Holland. When the teacher called on the child’s (fellow) Jewish classmate, “right away I knew he felt just the way I did that day at the May Company (department store). I could just see it on his face. He got all red, and his eyes filled up, and he looked this way and that just like I did when I was scared and looking for my mother.”
When called upon, the narrator is able to share the story of his family and his people, starting with how the word Jewish comes from Judah, one of the sons of Jacob. He observes, in communicating the story to readers, that it is empowering to know one’s name; “to stand up and say it loud and strong when somebody asks you.” He concludes: “You’re somebody when you know your name.”
At Hanukkah – a holiday that affirms commitment to Jewish identity and practice whatever the cultural milieu of the time – the greatest gift we can give our children is knowing their own story and the values and history that have shaped their family and their people. Particularly in today’s environment, the ability to proudly identify as a Jew with knowledge and appreciation of one’s heritage is a gift like none other; it is a gift for the ages. This Hanukkah, consider Jewish educational experiences that you can provide your child(ren) or family in the days, weeks, and months ahead. As we celebrate Hanukkah let each of our children engage with and find meaning in their identity as Jews.
Shabbat Shalom, and may the light of Hanukkah shine brightly for you, your loved ones, and our brothers and sisters in Israel..