Sunday, January 04, 2009

Article from Father Murray about our Jewish-Catholic Chanukah celebration

Here is the incredibly sweet article written by Father Murray, about our "Jewish-Catholic Chanukah celebration" last week.
Who knew that deer were Jewish? Or that Apple iPhones could sing in Hebrew?

Those were just two of the wonderful discoveries on Monday, December 22, when the Sisters joined with their friends to celebrate Hanukkah, the eight-day Jewish festival of lights.

Over the years, the Jutans and the Sisters have become good friends. This year, they decided to celebrate their friendship in a very special way: by a shared celebration of Hanukkah. Since the Sisters’ cloistered way of life meant that they could not all travel to the Jutans’ home, the Jutans kindly offered to bring Hanukkah to the Sisters—and what a beautiful and memorable celebration it was!

December 22 was the second night of Hanukkah this year, and the monastery’s dining room was decorated in festive style, with Hanukkah plates and napkins. As the sun set, the Sisters gathered with Cheryll, Arthur, their California-based son Mike and their Waterloo-based daughter Norma, for the lighting of the first two candles on the menorah. The Jutans explained the historical background of the festival, and joined in a beautiful sung version of the Hanukkah blessings as Norma lit the tapers. Then, as the (real) candles burned, Mike (a computer graphics designer) introduced us to one of his recent inventions, the iMenorah—a computerized menorah application designed for the Apple iPhone, which allows those away from home on Hanukkah evenings to light the appropriate number of “virtual” candles, and to listen to Mike’s chanting of the blessings we had just heard.

To begin the meal, Arthur led us in the Kiddush (blessing) over the bread, and Mike led us in the blessing over the wine. Cheryll had obviously been busy in the kitchen for several days, judging by the rich buffet of festive foods awaiting us—salads and antipasto, vegetables, chopped herring, cheese, crackers and (to everyone’s delight) the traditional Hanukkah treat of latkes, grated potato pancakes which are absolutely scrumptious with applesauce! The meal was a wonderful time of sharing, and allowed everyone to get to know each other better.

As we were going through the buffet line, we caught a glimpse of them: a family of five deer who had appeared in the Sisters’ back garden, just a few feet from the window where the menorah was burning. No doubt they were attracted by the flickering flames in the window, and they grazed around, apparently unfazed, for several minutes as we snapped pictures of them. Tradition says that the menorah should be placed in a window so that it can be seen by everyone passing by—and apparently that includes the neighbourhood’s “Jewish” deer! It was a very special surprise for all of us.

After dinner, we retreated to the Sisters’ common room, where tables had been set up for the dreidel game which is traditional in Jewish families during these eight days. A dreidel is a small, four-sided spinning top, with Hebrew letters on each side: nun [“n”], gimel [“g”], hay [“h”] and shin [“sh”]—the first letters of the Hebrew phrase Nes gadol hayah sham [“A great miracle happened there”], referring to the victory of the Jewish Maccabee family and their supporters over the Syrian Greeks in 164 B.C., which allowed the Jews to restore and re-dedicate the Jerusalem Temple (the story is told in the two Old Testament books of Maccabees in Catholic Bibles); it is that re-dedication that Hanukkah commemorates, when the one tiny flask of kosher oil—enough to burn for a single day—burned for eight days instead. A true miracle, and a sign of G-d’s pleasure as worship was restored to the Temple!

The letters also stand for Yiddish words (nicht, ganz, halb, shtell), which roughly translate as “nothing,” “everything,” “half” and “put in”. The game began with a bowl of hazelnuts and chocolate coins (“gelt” in Yiddish) in the centre of each table, and each person’s spin suggested an action: do nothing, take all the “pot,” take half the “pot” or add a hazelnut or gold coin to the bowl. Needless to say, some people seemed consistently luckier than others, and we often needed to replenish the bowls (even the lucky players were generous with their spoils!). The evening was filled with laughter as we shared in this ancient (and fun!) game, admiring the truly skilled among us who succeeded in spinning the dreidel upside-down, on its stem, and wondering whether perhaps some dreidels were weighted to always land on one letter or another! Fruitcake, dreidel-shaped cookies and cups of delicious festive tea added a special flavour to the evening.

All too soon, this special—and historic—evening was over. The Sisters gathered and sang a beautiful rendition of the Aaronic blessing (“May the Lord bless you and keep you…”; Numbers 6:24-26), which is common to both our religious traditions. With an exchange of gifts and warm hugs, we all wished each other joy and blessings for our respective holidays, with a hope that the Sisters’ first Jewish-Catholic Hanukkah celebration would not be the last.

In a world where religions can so easily—and tragically—divide people and promote prejudices, this sharing of a special holiday tradition demonstrated once again how friendship, respect and understanding are far stronger than our differences. As Jews and Christians, we have much to celebrate in common, and particularly the gift of G-d’s light, which leads us toward Him—and toward one another—in faith, peace and love.

Father Murray

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