The smells and sights of this holiday party – onions and potatoes frying in oil, neatly arranged candles waiting to be lit, some Hebrew tunes playing from a MacBook – were unfamiliar to most of the people present.
That said, four months into my year of living in Berlin, Germany, as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant, celebrating Chanukah with new German friends was the most natural way I would choose to celebrate the holiday.
“Hash browns?” one friend asks, pointing the seasoned potatoes bubbling in oil on the stovetop of my friends’ apartment. “Latkes,” I clarify, the oil symbolizing one of the miracles of Chanukah. New recipe, ancient tradition.
“What’s this all about, anyway?” another friend asks, as we take seats on the floor to enjoy a delicious holiday food mash-up: Sufganiot (Chanukah jelly donuts) served alongside homemade Glühwein, a hot spiced red wine thoroughly enjoyed by Germans as the temperatures drop.
So I shared. I shared with the group of about 15 Germans and Jews in their twenties the story of Chanukah. The story my parents told me and their parents told them; the story Jews around the world have told each other for hundreds of years. The story of how, amidst persecution and oppression, a few courageous and untrained Jews stood up to the most powerful army in the world, waged a war for religious freedom, fought for light over dark, for hope over fear. And, surely enough, won.
And then we ate. The essential ingredient in sharing cultures, I’ve learned, is food.
We shared laughs as strangers became friends and the foreign became familiar. A little later, it was time to light the candles. As Amira, the party’s host, explained the blessings and ritual for lighting the candles, I took a step back to take it all in.
The Kabbalists, Jewish mystics of yore, teach us that the power of a candle is in its ability to endlessly share, to light other candles, without diminishing its strength at all.
But to share light, you still need another candle to be the receptacle. So too, mutual understanding, compassion, empathy, these noble and lofty concepts, are made meaningful through friendship. There is no trust, sharing or coming together, except for through friendship.
Senator Fulbright had this in mind, I believe, when he wrote, the Fulbright Program aims “to bring a little more knowledge, a little more reason, and a little more compassion into world affairs and thereby to increase the chance that nations will learn at last to live in peace and friendship.” I have no doubt about this: apply what happened at this one holiday party on a cold and rainy night in Berlin on a global level and the world will be a warmer and brighter place.
The Kabbalists teach that even one light can illuminate a great dark room. I think Senator Fulbright would agree.