A Conversation With Rabbi Daniel Geffen
By Christine Sampson
Rabbi Daniel Geffen, who is in his fourth year at Temple Adas Israel, speaks with The Sag Harbor Express about the meaning of Hanukkah, which is set to begin on the evening of Tuesday, December 12, and how it is celebrated here in Sag Harbor.
Give me an introduction to how Temple Adas Israel celebrates Hanukkah. Is there anything new or different planned this year, or will longstanding traditions and services continue?
We’re a wonderful example of tradition and continuity and, when we are able, ingenuity as well. We really celebrate the past, where we came from, what matters and what we have inherited, and take those things and make them relevant and connected to our community here in Sag Harbor and on the East End. To that end, we are doing a couple of things. Our pre-Hanukkah Pop-up Shop is sort of novel. Our community out here does not have easy access to Judaica, which is a catch-all term for gifts and Jewish ritual items and accoutrements which are purchased and used during Hanukkah. Our Hebrew School PTA this year has arranged it both before and during the holiday, and all of the proceeds coming from this the Hebrew school students will decide either a place or places to donate the funds after discussing what Judaism has to say about giving and social justice work in general. Every year we are honored to have a ceremonial lighting of the menorah in town next to the windmill. It’s an opportunity for our whole community to come together … for us to connect in a very serious and public way with our larger community and show we are very proud to be residents here and to be part of this community and to celebrate our holiday with joy. And then Sunday, December 17, is our annual Hanukkah party. It’s not just for us — we invite everyone who wants to join us and we have activities for both kids and adults. We’ll be showing a film this year called “I’m Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas,” which is about the fact that many of the most well-known Christmas songs were written by Jewish songwriters. It has a humorous bent to it and shows the interconnectedness of what we now call the holiday season.
What is your favorite part, personally, about celebrating Hanukkah?
I can answer that in two parts. When you’re a kid, Hanukkah is all about the gifts and getting that one thing you’ve been hoping for all year. I’m a video game guy, so it was always a video game of some sort for me growing up. There’s that simple, almost materialistic aspect to it. But as you get older, and especially once you get to the point in life where I’m at, where I’m lucky enough to be married to a wonderful person and have a two-year-old child, that the experience of giving, and in particular of seeing the reaction to that giving and seeing the joy that it elicits, is the greatest part of it. It comes down to being able to celebrate those simple, special times … with the people who mean the most to you. It’s something I always look forward to.
In a holiday season that often seems so focused on gift-giving in general, how do you remind people that there is a deeper significance of Hanukkah?
There really are two aspects to Hanukkah that whenever I speak about it, think or write about it are things I naturally come back to. The first is the more obvious one, which is the light. The Hanukkah story is about a miraculous explosion of light, so to speak, when there should have been none it is something that lasted eight days. So you automatically know there are some divine aspects to the holiday — remembering the fact that when we are in moments when it seems like the impossible is out of our reach, that miracles are actually possible. They happen all the time and don’t necessarily have to be on a grand scale – sometimes the miracle is just seeing the light that we bring into the world and how it reflects in other people’s lives. It is not an accident that this holiday comes at the darkest time of the year because it is a reminder that light is an aspect of divine creation. By its nature it has a deep, spiritual nature to it. On the other hand, the light that we celebrate at Hanukkah is something that requires our action. It is not the natural light occurring from the sun coming up. It requires us to spark the flame, so to speak. That ties into the second aspect of Hanukkah, which is in the name itself. The Hebrew root of the word for Hanukkah means dedication, or more particularly, rededication. In the story of Hanukkah, when the Jews were able to overthrow the Syrian Greeks who had taken over the land of Israel and who had desecrated the temple, they were able to retake the temple and rededicate it, it meant a second opportunity to reconnect to what at that point in our history was the central location of Jewish identity and practice. Obviously, the days of rededicating the temple have become more distant, that idea has become more distant, so a lot of times what I try to do is have our guests and members think about what are the things in their lives that they are going to dedicate themselves to in the coming year. The principles, the values, the experiences, the responsibilities they are going to dedicate themselves to not for their own betterment but for the betterment of the world in which we live. So the light aspect is what gives us hope and the dedication aspect is what gives us our mission, our responsibility to ultimately build a world that is better and more just than the world we are living in now.
In 2015, a Washington Post opinion writer said it is a broad “myth” that “Hanukkah is an important Jewish holiday.” Would you agree or disagree with this writer’s assessment?
My first critique of that particular statement is really the phrasing. I wouldn’t use the word “myth” necessarily because the reality of what she is saying is correct. In Jewish practice, across all the denominations and across history, Hanukkah is not considered a major holiday. It does not mean that it is insignificant, it simply means it is not a holiday that is derived directly from the Torah, and as a result does not function in the same kind of way as many other holidays. That said, time has an effect, and so our perspectives on things change as time evolves. Basically, especially in America and especially in the last 100 years, as Jews found more and more comfort and acceptance in larger society, a holiday like Hanukkah, which appears in close proximity to the holiday of Christmas and Thanksgiving even, became an opportunity for Jews to publicly celebrate a holiday that is meaningful to us, that is unique and distinct from Christmas and yet at the same time shares many of the same underlying principles and values in their secular applications, in other words, thinking again about giving to others, about giving to the needy, about celebrating with family. So the designation is not factually incorrect, but calling it a myth is just a misrepresentation of how Hanukkah became a more significant holiday. I think it was through a modern re-application of some of its core qualities to allow for an identifiable holiday that could be celebrated openly in this country and around the world. Hanukkah has been a Jewish holiday going on for more than two millennia, so it’s not like it’s a new fad, but religiously speaking it is considered one of the minor holidays.
Are there any myths about Hanukkah that you think do exist today?
One myth I can usually put to rest which is usually an unfortunate reality for young Jewish children who sometimes have an assumption about this and maybe their non-Jewish friends who may also have an assumption about this is that you don’t get eight days of amazing presents. Usually the first night and the last night are things that you really wanted, and the intermediary nights are things that you needed that could be wrapped up as a gift. There’s a great Jon Lovitz “Saturday Night Live” sketch from years ago called “Hanukkah Harry,” where he shows up and gives everyone socks. Every family is different, but that was certainly my experience. Beyond that, I don’t think there really are myths, but I think there are opportunities for greater engagement and understanding of the story of Hanukkah and its contemporary significance.
With all of the conflict happening in the world these days, both nationally and internationally, is there a particular message you will offer during Hanukkah at Temple Adas Israel this year?
The imagery of seeing light and darkness projected in that kind of way against a very stark background really does help to remind us that each of us basically are living embodiments of light. Judaism understands that light is ultimately derived from God, so if we therefore think of ourselves as living embodiments of God with a responsibility to bring light into the world, that is a general answer to the times in which we are living now, and oftentimes was the case throughout Jewish history which unfortunately has a tremendous amount of challenging times, in which hope becomes the only thing that keeps us alive, keeps us moving forward. Basically, Judaism is a religion of hope. This is a country founded on the concepts of faith, hope and the pursuit of justice. Ultimately the Hanukkah story is also about a group of people who fought against all odds against what they thought was a deep injustice and a deep threat to existence, and who overcame what felt like insurmountable odds and ultimately succeeded is always a constructive message in times when many feel powerless and many people feel that the forces of evil collectively are winning out. The only way we ever truly lose is to never take up the cause in the first place.
Temple Adas Israel will celebrate its annual community menorah lighting on Tuesday, December 12, at 6 p.m. on Long Wharf with songs, blessings, hot chocolate and sufganiyot. Its Hanukkah party will be Sunday, December 17, at 4 p.m. For more information, call (631) 725-0904 or visit templeadasisrael.org.