This Hanukkah, as millions light their menorahs and rededicate themselves to their family, their faith and their communities, we look for ways to find and share joy, light, healing, and blessings.
We reached out to filmmakers, authors, and film critics to learn where they’re finding inspiration this year. Some said family, others offered a meaningful movie, book or song. And many shared that acknowledging and facing darkness — past and present, personal and political — is a crucial part of finding that light. As the Jewish proverb says, “A little bit of light pushes away a lot of darkness.” [Nine seemed a fitting number for us, reflecting that there are eight Hanukkah candles plus a “helper” candle known as a shamash, to give us nine lights on a menorah.]
1. Healing and Transformation
“One thing that’s shining a lot of light right now for me is What Does Justice Look Like? The Struggle for Liberation in Dakota Homeland by Waziyatawin, about the work of healing and transformation needed in the United States with regards to centuries of harms towards Native Americans. It is a crucially important, if not easy, book to read.
“For me, bringing light is not about being made to feel comfortable, but rather about illuminating long-buried truths–even if they are difficult to face–and seeing possibilities for a more whole future together. As the late 19th-early 20th c. thinker Rav Kook, wrote:
‘Everyone must know that within them burns a candle…. One is obligated to work hard to reveal the light of one’s candle in the public realm for the benefit of the many. One needs to ignite one’s candle and make of it a great torch to enlighten the whole world.’”
— Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, author of Surprised by God: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love Religion
2. The Power of Music
“As a counterpoint to the darkness sweeping out of Washington and to the polarizing political stories dominating the cultural landscape, this holiday season, I am finding much joy and light in music. One recent example: My wife, Karen, and I arrived at the gym for a workout. It was her birthday, so she got to choose the music. She asked me to put on Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass. In no time, instead of talking news and politics, our fellow gym rats from their mid-’20s to their ’70s started dancing (sometimes with each other), singing and humming along with a twinkle in their eyes, a smile on their face and a spring in their step. Herb’s fun, upbeat sound simply made people feel good.
“Whether working out, or cranking up the car stereo on the way to work, whether listening while writing at the computer or playing softly in the background during dinner after a long day, music has the power to bring joy and light, to inspire, to heal and to transform.”— John Scheinfeld, writer/director of Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary
3. Podcasts Offering Redemption
“What’s bringing me the most joy, peace or sense of hope for the future right now? The first thing that popped into my head with regard to seasonal light-bringers was podcasts, perhaps because I can enjoy them continually or serially, and on the move. Family Secrets, Heavyweight and Terrible, Thanks for Asking came to mind immediately — counterintuitive, perhaps, because these shows typically deal with tragedy, deception, and tragic deception.
“But not only are their hosts (Dani Shapiro, Jonathan Goldstein and Nora McInerny) smart, irrepressible and quite often hilarious, built into the relentless focus on misery is the implicit expectation that the journey is worth taking because it offers redemption. For me, the current climate demands a redemptive perspective. I guess I prefer my ‘triumphs of the human spirit’ with a side of dark humor.” — Kim Green, author of upcoming Rivals (Crown Books for YoungReaders), first installment of the YA sci-fi trilogy The Last Extinction
“This holiday season I’m finding light in seeing the world through my toddler’s bright eyes. She’s at an age of pure discovery and fascination with everything around her and watching her find complete joy in life’s small pleasures, things we often take for granted, truly fills me with happiness each and every day. Her big smile at the sight of a Hanukkah candle or her excitement in spotting holiday decorations in the neighborhood reminds me that love and family are truly the greatest gifts in the world.”— Debbie Appel, TV writer/producer, Hidden Heroes, Expedition Unknown
5. A Classic Movie Celebrating Family
“Right now for me it’s the 1996 film Big Night, which I just showed at the IFC Center in New York City. It’s a movie that’s about life itself – family, food, creativity, relationships, mortality, eternity. It’s also about how hard life can be even when it’s wonderful.”— Matt Zoller Seitz, New York Magazine TV critic, author of The Wes Anderson Collection, co-author of The Sopranos Sessions
“It does indeed feel like a dark time. In fact, it feels like so many family members, friends, and colleagues are struggling, and I can’t recall when it was last this way. Some are struggling with health concerns or unexpected family tragedies. Others struggle with the financial stress of raising a family in an increasingly expensive and complicated world. Still others are frustrated and angry at the intensely fraught political situation we are living within – and frightened by the dramatic threats of climate change, gun-related violence or terrorism.
“But as we approach Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, one thing I constantly return to is the idea of gratitude, and giving thanks for the good things in life – even the tiniest things we think don’t matter much. Science has proven time and again that we can reshape our own thinking and retrain our brains. And resilience, the ability to bounce back from difficult situations, can be reinforced by practice.
“In tough times, we can offer support to others. But on our own, training our brains to think positive thoughts helps our ability to bounce back when things are tough. Personally, I use the free Grateful app, and write down 1-3 things I’m grateful for every day. And I use and have bought the book Good Days Start With Gratitude to give to friends, to help them focus on doing the same.
“I give thanks for a good meal or a sunny day, and I appreciate a smile from a friend or even a stranger – and I try to return the favor as often as I can. I try to look others in the eyes and acknowledge them; I try to thank people for small things; I try to let others go first in line, or continue on ahead if they’re in a rush. Most of all, I try to live by a simple motto that I’ve found easy to say and hard to do: ‘Forgive Everyone Everything.’”— Dan Bree, Showrunner/Executive Producer Alone (History Channel), Off the Hook: Extreme Catches (Animal Planet), Catching Monsters (Discovery Channel), Safari Brothers (National Geographic Wild)
7. A Transcendent Movie about Friendship
“A candle worthy of lighting up my celebration of the Maccabees and their miracle is The Peanut Butter Falcon. Zack Gottsagen (who has Down Syndrome in real life), is a revelation as Zak, a young man with Down Syndrome who embarks on the trip of a lifetime. His partner in this joyous journey is Tyler, played with a powerful, pitch-perfect panache by Shia LaBeouf, who turns in the best performance of his career. The pair are delightful together and give the best buddy movies a serious run for their money. Zak wants nothing more than to be a wrestler and to study with a former great. He breaks out of his institution and winds up on a boat with Tyler. The pair discover a beautiful bond and a friendship that transcends everything each has been through in life. There are feel-good movies, and then there’s The Peanut Butter Falcon soaring high above them all.” — Joel David Amos, founder of The Movie Mensch, film critic, entertainment journalist and pop culture guru
8. A New Take on a Hanukkah Classic
“As a Jewish children’s musician and educator, my holiday season is filled with frying latkes, dreidel decorating, silly songs, sufganiyot, dancing, chocolate gelt, and light of all kinds. The light of candles, of community, of family, and of the sun occasionally peeking out from rain clouds. Although Chanukah (or Hanukkah, as it is now more commonly spelled) tends to get the second-tier treatment in the American cultural landscape, in my world it is front and center and all-encompassing.
“That’s why I was thrilled a few years ago when I discovered that one of my favorite soul singers, Sharon Jones, recorded a Hanukkah song! This song demands to be thrown onto all holiday playlists, and it is silly, joyful and downright funky. When I hear an artist reach across the holiday divide and embrace something culturally different, this to me is the essence of what holiday light is all about. We sadly lost the divine Miss Sharon Jones to cancer, but we still have all her groovy, funky, heart-lifting tunes to get us through our own struggles.”— Alison Faith Levy is a Jewish educator and children’s musician in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her latest single is “All I Want for Chanukah is a Ukulele.”
9. A Book Speaking to the Soul
“Right now, books are giving me a ton of light. In particular, I randomly came upon the book The Untethered Soul by Michael A. Singer. It was published in 2011, but it is just what I needed now. It helps remind me who I am outside of all the distractions and chaos sometimes happening around me, or even more importantly inside my head. The writing is simple, but super effective. And I find it not only brings me light, but also allows me to feel lighter as I go through my days.” — Lacey Schwartz, director of the PBS Independent Lens documentary Little White Lie
Sharon: As for me, I’m finding light and joy, as I always do, in my two dogs. Whenever the news gets too overwhelming or a day goes wrong, I can count on their sweet, loving devotion to brighten my mood. When you walk a dog in a dog-friendly neighborhood like mine, you get to know everyone pretty quickly. From day one, my first dog, aptly named Dulcie (which means “sweet”), insisted on crossing the street to meet strangers, both human and canine, many of whom have become dear friends. She helped me get involved in saving my local park and other community causes I might have otherwise missed. She’s now 15 and blind in one eye. Her younger brother—a stray who a neighbor found on Election Day 2008—is 12 and totally blind. They’re both a lot slower than they used to be and their list of ailments is increasing. I’m well aware that they might not be here this time next year. As I see their energy dimming, my heart is heavy, but know that the light and love they have brought me will be with me always.