Another source of light: Chanukah

Max and Michelle Jasny and their daughters Lila and Sydney
Max and Michelle Jasny and their daughters Lila (left) and Sydney prepare for the first candle lighting of the holiday. Photos by Susan Safford

By CK Wolfson - December 14, 2006

The Island, however scaled down, offers the diversity that creates a tapestry of community life; different threads bind together to form a rich durable fabric. So at this time of year, when Christmas, with its colors, sounds, and symbols dominate for the majority of the population, other beliefs and traditions are being celebrated to add to the glow and spirit of the season.

As are many other Jewish families, the Jasny family in West Tisbury is preparing to celebrate Chanukah.

Called the Festival of the Lights, Chanukah lasts eight days, each day marked with the lighting of a candle in a menorah. The holiday, which is not considered one of the holiest in Jewish tradition, commemorates the eight days that the eternal light (never to be extinguished in Jewish houses of worship) continued to shine in the Temple in Jerusalem. This was considered a miracle, because there was only enough lamp oil for a single day after the Temple was destroyed by the Syrians in their attempt to prevent Jews from religious worship.

Chanukah candelabras
The Jasny's have a large collection of menorahs, the special candelabras used to hold a Chanukah candle for every night of the eight-day holiday.

Max Jasny, a son of immigrants and holocaust survivors, grew up in the Bronx, N.Y., and recounts often being assaulted by neighboring children for being Jewish. He says, "Chanukah is the first recorded battle specifically for religious freedom. It's interesting because the complete Chanukah story is about a group of zealots who resisted assimilation. Not all Jews did that during that time. Many assimilated happily. But Jews have been living with the same dilemma for centuries. We are a fairly welcoming culture."

He continues, "My parents didn't expect this country to be sensitive to Jewish culture. This is not a Jewish country, and you can't expect it to function like one. But I think there's something beneficial to being on the outside of the mainstream - to look at things from another point of view, and to examine it. We love this country, but for some, I think there's a negative feeling of not being able to be fully invested in the whole."

Max Jasny's bar mitzvah
A photo from Max Jasny's bar mitzvah album shows his mother, Lola, a holocaust survivor, adjusting his tallit before the traditional celebration begins.

Max and Dr. Michelle Jasny (a long-time Island veterinarian) and their two daughters, Lila, who just turned nine, and her sister Sydney, six (busy with the family puppy and other things around her), sit around their dining room table sharing thoughts about being in the minority at this time of year. Dr. Jasny laughs and remembers, "My kids used to ask new people, 'Are you Christmas people or Chanukah people?'"

Dr. Jasny says, "I think this is the hardest time of year for Jewish kids. One year in Lila's Hebrew school class, there was only one other family that just celebrated Chanukah." She smiles. "Our kids are a minority because both their parents are Jewish. It's up to us to help our children establish their Jewish identity."

Her husband adds, "Being a parent makes you question how you express your identity. Once you grow up, it's often not a conscious choice."

While they enjoy helping friends decorate their Christmas trees, often sharing Chanukah celebrations with traditional food and large, candle-filled parties at their house, Dr. Jasny notes, "It's hard to maintain minority identity here. When the girls were younger they really fought to have a tree. Max and I felt badly about it, but we made a commitment to maintain our Jewish identity. To us, regardless of the pagan or Druid aspects, the Christmas tree is not part of the Jewish tradition."

"It's a problem because as a parent, we don't want our kids to feel as if they are missing out," Mr. Jasny says.

His wife adds, "It's sort of internalized. All year long we fight that tendency to not feel a part of the mainstream."

Lila, who is carefully working on a project for her third grade class at the Charter School as she speaks, recalls, "Last year in my school some girls were playing a game about wishing for presents from Santa Claus, and they wouldn't let me play because I didn't believe in Santa Claus." She asked her mother if she could just pretend she believed in Santa Claus.

Her mother explains how successfully the school responded to the incident, using it to further discussions and understanding. She says, "We really appreciate the efforts the school and friends put into being thoughtful about these issues. And we like that we're thinking of it together. I don't think the kids' friends grasp the difference between Christian and Jewish."

And Lila pipes up, "They know we have dreidls (a top with Hebrew letters used in a game)."

"The issue isn't what we celebrate," Dr. Jasny asserts, "but rather, do we think well about how each other feels, and are we sensitive to the differences?"