Friday, December 07, 2007

A Feast of Lights — a Poetry Friday post

It’s currently Chanukah, known as the "festival of lights". The word Chanukah doesn’t mean "festival," though. It means dedication. The holiday refers back to the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after a band of Jewish rebels known as the Maccabees led by a man named Mattathias managed to throw a bunch of Greek pagans out. There was only enough sacramental oil to last for one night, but miraculously it burnt for eight nights until more could be gained. Or so the story goes.

The timing of Chanukah, like the timing of all Jewish holidays, is based on the lunar calendar. While it seems odd to many Christians that the Jewish holidays move about, it seems equally odd to Jewish children that Christmas remains fixed on December 25th. To celebrate Chanukah, I thought I’d share a poem by Emma Lazarus, a nice Jewish girl from New York who was concerned with the plight of Jewish immigrants, as you may recall from my Independence Day post, in which I featured her more famous poem, "The New Colossus". What? You think don’t know it? Sure you do, or at least these lines: "Give me your tired, your poor,/
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free . . ."

The Feast of Lights
by Emma Lazarus

Kindle the taper like the steadfast star
  Ablaze on evening's forehead o'er the earth,
And add each night a lustre till afar
  An eightfold splendor shine above thy hearth.
Clash, Israel, the cymbals, touch the lyre,
  Blow the brass trumpet and the harsh-tongued horn;
Chant psalms of victory till the heart takes fire,
  The Maccabean spirit leap new-born.

Remember how from wintry dawn till night,
  Such songs were sung in Zion, when again
On the high altar flamed the sacred light,
  And, purified from every Syrian stain,
The foam-white walls with golden shields were hung,
  With crowns and silken spoils, and at the shrine,
Stood, midst their conqueror-tribe, five chieftains sprung
  From one heroic stock, one seed divine.

Five branches grown from Mattathias' stem,
  The Blessed John, the Keen-Eyed Jonathan,
Simon the fair, the Burst-of Spring, the Gem,
  Eleazar, Help of-God; o'er all his clan
Judas the Lion-Prince, the Avenging Rod,
  Towered in warrior-beauty, uncrowned king,
Armed with the breastplate and the sword of God,
  Whose praise is: "He received the perishing."

They who had camped within the mountain-pass,
  Couched on the rock, and tented neath the sky,
Who saw from Mizpah's heights the tangled grass
  Choke the wide Temple-courts, the altar lie
Disfigured and polluted--who had flung
  Their faces on the stones, and mourned aloud
And rent their garments, wailing with one tongue,
  Crushed as a wind-swept bed of reeds is bowed,

Even they by one voice fired, one heart of flame,
  Though broken reeds, had risen, and were men,
They rushed upon the spoiler and o'ercame,
  Each arm for freedom had the strength of ten.
Now is their mourning into dancing turned,
  Their sackcloth doffed for garments of delight,
Week-long the festive torches shall be burned,
  Music and revelry wed day with night.

Still ours the dance, the feast, the glorious Psalm,
  The mystic lights of emblem, and the Word.
Where is our Judas? Where our five-branched palm?
  Where are the lion-warriors of the Lord?
Clash, Israel, the cymbals, touch the lyre,
  Sound the brass trumpet and the harsh-tongued horn,
Chant hymns of victory till the heart take fire,
  The Maccabean spirit leap new-born!

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