As a good stereotypical member of Russian intelligentsia, I was, of course, required to fall in love with Leo Tolstoy’s works. It wasn’t easy. The books were thick. A good deal of “War and Peace” was written in French (the language of Russian nobility). The sentences were even longer than our usual run-on Russian sentences, and the fate of Anna Karenina was not easy to relate to for a teenager living in the Soviet workers “paradise.” I did not love Tolstoy until I came across this paragraph:
“What is the Jew? … What kind of unique creature is this whom all the rulers of all the nations of the world have disgraced and crushed and expelled and destroyed; persecuted, burned and drowned, and who, despite their anger and their fury, continues to live and to flourish. What is this Jew whom they have never succeeded in enticing with all the enticements in the world, whose oppressors and persecutors only suggested that he deny (and disown) his religion and cast aside the faithfulness of his ancestors?! The Jew – is the symbol of eternity … He is the one who for so long had guarded the prophetic message and transmitted it to all mankind. A people such as this can never disappear. The Jew is eternal. He is the embodiment of eternity.”
Now Tolstoy had me. It was a time when I was just learning about who I was as a Jew. I recently heard about the Maccabees and Chanukah on the Voice of Israel. In spite of Soviet attempts to disrupt the transmission through interference, I heard the distant voice on the radio announcing my identity.
I then dug out a book from our library that my maternal grandfather inherited from his father. It was a first edition, beautifully preserved copy of Leo Tolstoy’s Circle of Reading. Tolstoy compiled a collection of stories, tales, sayings, and poems to be read each day of the year. I did it for two years running, adding a little inspiration and elevation to each day. It helped me understand the influence of reading on identity and the meaning of doing that daily.
This Chanukah I will give as gifts a book that reminds me of this treasure that I could not bring out of the Soviet Union with me 40 years ago. Take Your Soul to Work by my teacher, my friend, my thought partner and my co-author of a book on Jewish Peoplehood, Dr. Erica Brown, contains a short essay for every day of the year and a compelling daily question on character building.
Chanukah also reminds us about the significance of daily inspiration. For each eight days we add light into our homes, expanding the amount of light as we progress. And if one day we don’t find ourselves in the holiday spirit, there’s always another one so we can try again.
Enjoy and Chanukah Sameah!