Meaning "dedication" in Hebrew, Chanukah celebrates the ancient victory of a band of Jewish rebels against the occupying forces who had outlawed Judaism and profaned the Temple in Jerusalem with Greek idols. The earliest version of the story was written in verse, in the biblical poetry of the Books of Maccabees.
Modern translations of the story can be found in David Rosenberg's A Poet's Bible, which restores a powerful immediacy to the laments of Mattathias and Judah. In a psalm by Mattathias, the Jewish priest offers a heartbreaking account of the devastation of his homeland:
Did I have to be born
raised to be a witness
to Jerusalem taken like a whore
my people massacred in spirit
sitting propped up like dead men
watching their city fall as if at play
Mattathias lays blame not only on the invaders, but also on his own people and their complacency:
the spirit ripped from our chests--
do we just lean back
and go on living?
Once liberated and rededicated, the Temple was restored with a week's worth of celebrations and rituals involving candles, food, and songs--hence the modern holiday of Chanukah, with its eight days of candle-lighting and feasting. The holiday's themes of redemption, rebellion, and rededication have found rich expression in the work of many poets. Their words can offer prayers, narratives, commentary, and a meaningful addition to the holiday observance.
The ever-present ritual of lighting candles can be deepened with poems such as "Blessed is the Match," written by the poet and Jewish resistance fighter Hannah Senesh, just before her execution during World War II. The poem begins:
Blessed is the match consumed in kindling flame
Blessed is the flame that burns in the secret fastness of the heart
Even poems less apparently connected to the holiday can enrich the experience, such as "Light Breaks Where No Sun Shines" by Dylan Thomas or Mark Strand's "The Coming of Light." Poetry can also offer alternative liturgy, such as "The 151st Psalm" by Karl Shapiro, or "Psalm III" by Allen Ginsberg, in which he declares:
Let the straight flower bespeak its purpose in straightness--to seek the light.
Let the crooked flower bespeak its purpose in crookedness--to seek the light.
Let the crookedness and straightness bespeak the light.
Like most Jewish holidays, Chanukah honors both the past and the present. It is a historical reminder, as well as a call to action, a chance to recommit to the future. As Muriel Rukeyser affirms in her "Letter to the Front": "To be a Jew in the twentieth century / Is to be offered a gift." Profound meaning can even be found in the burning candles, as Charles Reznikoff observes in "Notes on the Spring Holidays:"
In a world where each man must be of use
and each thing useful, the rebellious Jews
light not one light but eight--
not to see by but to look at.
For more poems that address the themes of Chanukah, consider the following:
"Between the eve of the holiday and the final day" by Yehuda Amichai
"How beautiful are thy tents, Jacob" by Yehuda Amichai
"Near, in the Aorta's Arch" by Paul Celan
"Tabernacle Window" by Paul Celan
"Psalm III" by Allen Ginsberg
"An Old Cracked Tune" by Stanley Kunitz
"A Feast of Lights" by Emma Lazarus
"Nishmat" by Marge Piercy
"V'ahavata" by Marge Piercy
"Meditations on the Fall and Winter Holidays" by Charles Reznikoff
"Notes on the Spring Holidays" by Charles Reznikoff
"Maccabees" by David Rosenberg
"Letter to the Front" by Muriel Rukeyser
"Blessed is the Match" by Hannah Senesh
"A Christmas Story" by Alan Shapiro
"The 151st Psalm" by Karl Shapiro
"The Coming of Light" by Mark Strand
"Light Breaks Where No Sun Shines" by Dylan Thomas