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The loathsome symbol

The Posner family menorah in Kiel, Germany, 1931.

It’s not often that you see a photograph that epitomizes the adage “a photo is worth a thousand words.” Every once in a while, though, just such a photo comes across your path.

By now it’s an iconic photo.

The one from Kiel, Germany. 1931.

Yad Vashem has circulated it for a while now.

Nonetheless, every Chanukah it still gets me every time.

You know the one — from 1931. In Kiel, Germany.

It was an erev Shabbat. The final, eighth day of Chanukah; hence, a menorah filled out with all eight candles.

It’s framed by the window of an apartment.

Just across the way, in the apartment building facing it, unfurled from another window, is the Nazi flag, stamped with the infamous interlocking black Nazi swastika.

It’s a powerfully silent, yet audible, picture. Although it is a still photo, it’s a photo that truly seems to talk; a defiant dialogue of two powerful symbols.

Although seemingly random, these two inanimate objects, appear as a nexus of mounting historic tensions; of forces of evil and forces of good; forces of light versus forces of darkness.

It’s all captured there in this black and white photo.

Sometimes, the power of a photo or of a moment, is only fully felt in retrospect, after events unfold. Once time has passed, looking back at certain seemingly ordinary photos, dialogues or events, they seem to carry prescient layers.

In this particular photo, this powerful dialogue of objects — and it was only 1931, the Nazis hand not yet risen to power — was already all too acutely felt by the woman, Rachel Posner, who snapped the iconic shot. Her husband, Rabbi Dr. Akiva Posner, was the rabbi of the small town of Kiel, Germany.

In looping German script, Rachel Posner writes in the back of the photo:

“Death to Judah”

So the flag says,

“Judah will live forever,”

so the light answers.

This mysterious time of erev Shabbat twilight is so special, to the point that it is encoded in creation as the time when miracles-to-come were encoded in history-to-come.

While obviously these liminal moments capturing the power of the light of a menorah in contrast to and defiance of the darkness of Nazism were anything but miraculous, they do seem laden. Not just with the sacredness of erev Shabbat, not just as the glowing light of an eight-candled menorah symbolizing the light of Chanukah in completion, but also of a twilight of historic proportions.

Although not as overt or dramatic as the dialogue of light and darkness that is intertwined in this photo, these silent dialogues are still going on in our own time.

How do we transmit Judaism to the next generation? What is the power of our Jewish rituals and continuity?

In a post modern world where everyone’s story is deemed a “narrative” to the exclusion of the recognition of historic truths, how can the legacy of Judaism be passed on to the next generation?

How do we transmit the powerful legacy of the Maccabees, who, against an all-powerful sophisticated Greek narrative like today’s culture of globalization, managed to take a very un-post modern position and stand their ground for the Jewish Torah? For the traditions that gave us the continuity of our Jewish identity in seminal mitzvot such as protecting and observing the sanctity of Shabbat?

Today we take the Jewish traditions of Torah study, Shabbat and circumcision for granted, but in the context of the assimilation the Maccabees were living in, had they not fought and rebelled in order to pass on their Judaism, it could have been lost to history forever.

In this photo, the symbol of the menorah stands as a defiant and proudly rebellious light against rising darkness.

But Chanukah goes beyond kindling the lights of a menorah in defiance of crystal clear darkness.

With each candle that we kindle, we can focus on a particular tradition or mitzvah with which we are assert our Jewish identity, to protect against forces that threaten the continuity of Judaism, even if they are not objective, overt evil, as represented by the Nazi flag.

Ultimately, this photo encapsulates the overcoming of both the physical forces of evil that can threaten to annihilate living, breathing Judaism, and the spiritual temptations and erosions that endanger the continuity of Judaism.

With each year of Chanukah and with each flame we light, we are asserting to ourselves how worthy our dedication to Judaism is, how much our challenges and story as a people still lives on in the spirit of the Hasmoneans.

That photo lives on for us today as an echo of the defiant Hasmonean spirit from long ago that touched a women in Kiel, Germany in 1931, who, in that same spirit, rose up to pass her defiance of the threat to our Judaism. We can almost touch the proximity of her defiance and continue to pass on this tradition of illuminated, Jewish defiance throughout all future twilights and generations.

Copyright © 2019 by the Intermountian Jewish News

IJN columnist | View from Central Park

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