Tonight is the first night of Hanukkah. As it happens, President Bush awarded the Medal of Freedom today to Natan Sharansky, among others. After the event at the White House, Sharansky attended a reception at the Israeli embassy where he told a story about one particular Hanukkah he spent in the Soviet Gulag.
During the year in question, Sharansky celebrated the first few nights of Hanukkah with some non-Jewish prisoners who helped him create a menorah and some candles. However, eventually the prison guards confiscated his menorah and candles, and he was forbidden to celebrate the holiday further on the theory that “a camp is not a synogogue.” Sharansky promptly went on a hunger strike. As he explained today, he would not have done so if he had not already started celebrating the holiday, but once you exercise a freedom you cannot give it back.
Fortunately, the prison officials were expecting the visit of state inspectors from Moscow and did not want Sharansky to be on a hunger strike when the visitors arrived. So the head of the prison asked him what it would it take to get him to stop. Sharansky said he would eat only if allowed to celebrate the one remaining night of Hanukkah. Sharansky also insisted that he be permitted to do so in the chief’s office (a much warmer place than Sharansky’s freezing quarters), that the chief bow his head while Sharansky prayed, and that he say “amen” with Sharansky at the end. The chief asked how long this would take. Sharansky assured him it would not take long.
The chief agreed and the menorah reappeared. Sharansky then said a lenghty prayer, part of which he made up, and which he repeated to keep the service going as long as possible. Since he was praying in Hebrew, the prison chief didn’t realize that Sharansky was repeating himself. Soon wax from the candles was dripping onto the chief’s beautiful desk.
At the end, Sharansky prayed that he would soon be able to celebrate Hanukkah with family in Jerusalem and added, “may the day come when all our enemies, who today plan our destruction, will stand before us and hear our prayers and say ‘Amen.’
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