On the 6th night of Hanukkah—Christmas Day—my husband Toby Kusmer and I were invited to an afternoon Hanukkah gathering at the home of Brookline friends Mark David and Debbie Ellerin. I should have known this would be no ordinary Hanukkah party. When we entered, we were among the youngest party goers, and trust me, we are not young!
Mark is the producer and host of a wonderful weekly radio program called the The Yiddish Voice. He himself is a self-taught Yiddish speaker who subsequently spoke Yiddish to his infant children so that they could attain fluency. His two children, Michael and Rebecca, who attended Brookline public schools and Gann Academy, are now college age adults who are fluent Yiddish speakers (in addition to Hebrew!) I have known Mark and Debbie for many years, as I too am a perpetual student of Yiddish, though nowhere near their proficiency level.
The home spilled over with a wide array of guests. As my husband and I sat down to eatslatkes, we were surrounded by Russian, Hebrew, Yiddish and English speakers. This was a unique Hanukkah party for sure! One of the gentlemen with whom I spoke is a Russian Jew who sits in front of me every Shabbat at Kehillath Israel, but we had done no more than wish each other a gut shabbos each week. Here I was able to encounter him socially and engage in a meaningful exchange. Mark introduced me to a woman who I learned was a 76 years old Holocaust survivor. As an active supporter of “Friends of Magan David Adom,” she was eager to tell me about their work to support EMTs in Haifa and now in Sderot.
The climax of the party was yet to come. We all gathered in the foyer of the home for a collective lighting of chanukiot which many guests had brought. Before Mark commenced the candle lighting, he offered a few remarks of thanks to his guests, as would any other host in his circumstances. But then came the beginning of the miracle part—he acknowledged that five of the guests are Holocaust survivors. Included in this group was Mr. Hollander, who survived one of the last transports in 1944 from Czechoslovakia to Auschwitz, a transport that coincidentally included Marks’ mother as well.
In the glow of over one hundred individual Hanukkah candles, Mr. Hollander began to sing for the gathered group. At 85 years old, he has a rich and beautiful voice. He opened with a haunting and to me unfamiliar version of Hanairot Halalu. This was followed by several other Hebrew and Yiddish favorites, as he was joined by other singers of Yiddish.
Hanukkah celebrates the miracle of eight days of oil, but in a deeper sense, it celebrates the miracle of Jewish survival. No one had to say that to us on Sunday night. We witnessed and experienced it firsthand. “Not my might nor by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of hosts” asserted the prophet Zechariah in last week’s Hanukkah Haftorah. Although we all know that spirit alone is not sufficient, it is unquestionably a part of our special Jewish story. And it dominated our Hanukkah gathering on a modest street in Brookline.
What an honor to have experienced this Hanukkah “nays“—this miracle—in our own times!
Ruth Kaplan is the Director of the CJP Boston-Haifa Connection and a long-time member of Congregation Kehillath Israel in Brookline, Massachusetts.