Pirsumei nisah, publicize the miracle. That is the command to put the Hanukkah menorah in the window. It is not enough to have light you should be moved to let others see the light. That is the same logic that mandates that we begin with one light and add another each night. Increasing light and blessing is the central message of Hanukkah. The spirit of the holiday encourages us to give gifts consistent with this message: something that ennobles and enlightens.
The best gifts are given as a quarterback throws a football -- a little beyond the receiver. Ideally, gifts are things we grow into, not grow out of. When you give a great book - not just any book, but one that bites into the soul and leaves a mark - you have given something that will not fade next week or next month. Of all the many Bar Mitzvah gifts I was given, I remember and retain "The Collected Sherlock Holmes". The book is battered and the pages discolored, but it has been a lifetime companion. It was years before I pulled it off the shelf but one day I did, and haven't stopped reading it since.
Here are books for Hanukkah that will grow in value. These are short, powerful, memorable works. They are all very different, but each is in its own way magical -- crisp, gripping, and wonderful.
If you have already read Wiesel's "Night" and "Anne Frank's Diary", two endlessly (and deservedly) bestselling accounts of the holocaust, you should turn your attention to these two works:
1. Primo Levi--"Survival in Auschwitz". Levi, an Italian chemist, wrote this account of his time in the camps (originally and more memorably titled "If This is a Man"). The cool precision of his prose heightens the horror. This is a book to be read with trembling hands.
Alongside the meticulous depiction of pointless cruelty, Levi speaks of those who transcended the degradation of the camp. One such is "Lorenzo" who fed him, lent him a tattered coat and wrote a postcard on his behalf: "But Lorenzo was a man; his humanity was pure and uncontaminated, he was outside this world of negation. Thanks to Lorenzo, I managed not to forget that I myself was a man."
Levi is unsparing; not only to the enslavers, but even to the prisoners who forget they are men. When Kuhn, another inmate, offers a fervent prayer after a selection where he escaped, thanking God that he has not been chosen for death as others march off to the gas chamber, Levi thinks: "Can Kuhn fail to realize that next time it will be his turn? Does Kuhn not understand that what has happened today is an abomination, which no propitiary prayer, no pardon, no expiation by the guilty, which nothing at all in the power of man can ever clean again.
If I was God, I would spit at Kuhn's prayer."
2. Irene Gut Opdyke, "In My Hands". If the world were just, everyone would know this woman and her story. Of course, if the world were just there would be no need for people like Irene Gut Opdyke. "In My Hands" is the hardly believable but true story of how a Polish Catholic repeatedly risked her life to save a dozen Jews in the basement of the house of the Nazi major for whom she was housekeeper. In the end it was about much more than housekeeping, in many ways. To say more is to trespass on a thrilling and moving reading experience.
Irene Gut Opdyke, who passed away in 2003 outside of Los Angeles, was a rare human being and a noble soul.
TWO WORKS OF FICTION
1. Isaac Bashevis Singer--"The Collected Stories". Nabokov said that ultimately only one thing mattered in a book: did a writer wield the wand of the enchanter? Singer writes not with a pen, but with a wand. His enchantment is instantaneous and unrelenting. It takes only a sentence or two for Singer to weave his magic, even in translation from the Yiddish. Filled with angels and dybbuks, frustrated scholars and sharp-tongued, wise women, sex promised, delayed, anticipated and occasionally even consummated, laced with the sort of wit that armored generations against the cruelties of a savage world, Singer crafts his own universe.
Singer's stories are equally at home in the old world and the new. Asked once why he wrote in Yiddish - which, after all, was a dying language--Singer characteristically replied "We have learned that, in Jewish history, between dying and dead is a very great distance."
Here are two typical, but unique, openings to a Singer story:
Many times in the past I have wished the impossible to happen - and then it happened. But though my wish came true, it was in such a topsy-turvy way that it appeared the Hidden Powers were trying to show me I didn't understand my own needs. That's what occurred that summer in Miami Beach."The Unseen"
They say that I, the Evil Spirit, after descending to earth in order to induce people to sin, will then ascend to Heaven to accuse them. As a matter of fact, I am also the one to give the sinner the first push, but I do this so cleverly that the sin appears to be an act of virtue...
Chaim Potok: "The Chosen". In this masterful, memorable novel, Potok tells his own story of a Hasidic boy's discovery of the wider world. It is also a saga of friendship, of what it means to be a parent, of speech and of silence, of the power of art and the fear and love of God. Millions of people of all faiths have been touched by this story which has lost none of its power in the more than forty years since it was published.
TWO WORKS OF NONFICTION
Abraham Joshua Heschel, "God in Search of Man". This is the greatest statement of the reigning poet of Jewish theology. Heschel's writings are filled with beautiful, quotable statements. Heschel taught fervent and enlightened faith, and defined a religious person as "a person who holds God and man in one thought at one time, at all times, who suffers from harm done to others, whose greatest passion is compassion, whose greatest strength is love and defiance of despair."
To read this book is to be introduced to a world of religious wonder, wonderfully expressed. Heschel pursued interreligious dialogue with the Vatican, marched arm in arm with Martin Luther King, and bequeathed some of the most exquisite religious writing of our time. We are, Heschel taught, messengers who have forgotten our message. Reading Heschel recalls us to the messages that should define our lives.
Herbert Weiner, "9 ½ Mystics". More than forty years ago the Reform Rabbi Herbert Weiner visited all the world's great Jewish mystics. This travelogue is filled with interesting insights into mysticism and sharp portraits of very different personalities. One of the subjects is Gershom Scholem, the premier scholar of mysticism who was not himself a mystic. He is in a chapter titled "The Accountant" because he knows where all the money is, but none of it belongs to him. Still a terrific and enriching read, with a new a new introduction and afterward; of the many books of Jewish mysticism I have read, none enchanted me so continuously as Weiner's.
Perhaps you also wish to offer some lighter fare? You can present a great thriller like David Benioff's "City of Thieves" or a more playful mystery/ fantasy like Michael Chabon's "The Yiddish Policeman's Union". Great American Jewish writers like Roth, Ozick, Bellow and Malamud also wait to be discovered, or rediscovered.
Yes, you can give the sweater, or the tie, or the impersonal gift card. Or you can give a book that may not be read right away but will stand ready for the time it can touch a heart, even change a life. Are books that influential? Well remember, if someone had not written the story in the book of Maccabees, you wouldn't be lighting those candles.