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The Avodah Blog

Poetics and Light

Yael KikenYael Kiken, from Chicago, IL, attended University of Michigan and works as an Elementary School Program Coordinator at DC SCORES, an organization that empowers students in urban communities using soccer, writing, creative expression, and service-learning.

Amid the chaos of being in a completely new city, job, living situation, and frame of mind, I’m finding comfort in small traditions. Hearing a song I loved in middle school, spotting a mug from my favorite college coffee shop, the smell of simmering cumin—these momentary sensations, conscious or not, bring me ease during a transitional time; calm in the midst of constant motion, pockets of the familiar in a strange and shifting landscape. Among these familiarities, small pieces of Jewish tradition help me feel rooted.

Hanukah observance is simple, routine, and beautiful: eight nights of lighting a Menorah. This is to commemorate the miracle in which a tiny amount of oil lasted for eight days—an unusually long amount of time—allowing the Maccabbees to clean and fully rededicate their desecrated temple.

In discussing how to carry out this tradition, students of two Rabbis had a debate about how to light the menorah. While Rabbi Shamai’s disciples suggested that we start the Hanukah celebration by lighting eight candles and whittle it down one by one each night, Rabbi Hillel’s disciples ultimately won out. They argued that we should start with one candle and add one each night, “to increase in holiness and not decrease.”

Jewish observance frequently asks us to pause—to say a blessing before proceeding, kiss a mezuzah before entering, grapple with a question before setting a tradition. I believe this is an important model for mindful, reflective action. Amid difficulty, tiny moments of illumination help me rededicate myself to my work.

Here is one of these moments:

December first—the first night of Hanukah—was the DC SCORES Poetry Slam. DC SCORES is the organization where I work—it runs afterschool poetry and soccer programs in DC public schools. At the end of the term, each school brings their best spoken-word performances to the stage at the poetry slam, a huge community event.

In addition to working at the DC SCORES office, I spend my afternoons facilitating writing workshops for 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders at Sampson Elementary. This is challenging, to say the least—I have felt resistance from some of the students, school faculty, and within myself, and was often frustrated that I couldn’t always engage the class in something that is so exciting for me. Despite a slow start, the Sampson kids wrote some excellent poetry over the course of the semester (they liked composing group poems that involved drumming and dancing).

That night, they were the most focused I had ever seen them, and they put on a great show. They didn’t win any awards, and were extremely disappointed—I, for one, couldn’t stop smiling; I felt so much pride and love for my team, for how far we had come together.

Of all the disappointed reactions from my team, I was most surprised at Marcus: as we filed out of the auditorium, he quickly swiped away the tears leaking out of his eyes. He could not be consoled.

This came as a surprise to me because Marcus had put up so much resistance the whole semester. His attendance was inconsistent (he was constantly kept after school by his teachers), and when he came, the sassy, angry attitude he showed me was shocking. He hardly ever wanted to write, and would talk back to me and other adults. Throughout the term, I learned some details about Marcus’s life—I learned that he lived far away from school, and that on the nights he didn’t go home with his classmates, he took the train home by himself. I learned that he often got in trouble for his attitude. Getting a glimpse into other facets of his life made me want to be more generous and hopeful towards Marcus. This was difficult. It wasn’t until the last few moments of the poetry slam—after trophies were given out and my dejected students traipsed back to the bus—that I felt proud of him.

I’m not sure why he cried at his team’s loss. I like to think his disappointment stemmed from confidence in the strength of his team’s performance. I certainly believe in the power of creative collaboration, and that DC SCORES creates communities among students from different grades, ethnicities, and neighborhoods when it brings them together as a team. Poetry and performance allow us to express ourselves outside the rules and parameters that generally govern the day. Performance, when done thoughtfully and collaboratively, can be extremely empowering.

Discovering Marcus’s engagement—momentary or deep-rooted, I’m not sure—was humbling. Others’ emotional investment teaches me how to emotionally invest—and staying open can help me find joy and meaning in a student, housemate, or insecurity that I had written off.

On the first night of Hanukah this year, I was reminded that I need to keep letting others surprise me.

Perhaps the ritual of lighting the menorah is meant to remind us to stay open to the unexpected—a gradual illumination, night by night, that prompts us to keep seeking  strangeness in the familiar, complexity in the simple, revelation in the everyday. Looking at the Beit Hillel’s words with Marcus in mind, I come to a new understanding of “holiness.” “Holiness” for me, this year, has to do with possibility, hope, and being open to the world revealing itself—slowly and unexpectedly.

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