Gathering Light Out Of Darkness
(a reflection, with facts and feelings, on Trans Day of Remembrance and Hanukkah)
Imagine it’s dark, and things are uncertain, and you’re afraid.
Whether that’s 2200 years ago, or yesterday, there is only one thing that you or I or any of us want — only one thing that we need — and it’s light. It’s not an accident that Hanukkah is a holiday that we observe with light, it’s not an accident that so many religious holidays, especially the ones that have been in the deepening dark of winter, are commemorated with light. It’s not an accident that the Ner Tamid — the eternal flame that hangs in every synagogue, the one thing every synagogue must have — is the light. A light that never goes out; a light to help us find our way.
The story of Hanukkah is simple on the face of it: a small band of Jews, as is so often the case in these Jewish military victory stories, through wit, divine intervention, guile or pure good luck, succeed over an enemy — in this case it’s the Seleucid Empire, though frankly this story is pretty portable through history and it could just as well be King Ahasuerus or Pope Gregory VII, which at least I can pronounce. In this case, the revolt was against King Antiochus — whom, let us remember and well mark, was the government of the time and all his actions legal — who pillaged and looted the Great Temple. He more or less outlawed Judaism by destroying the seat of it and turning it into an altar to Zeus (at which pigs were sacrificed, for the extra sacreligious icing on the already brutal cake).This sparked a revolt, and the revolt of the Jews against the Hellenizers was successful. At the end of their labors of battle, the victorious soldiers return to the temple, the seat of their religious and legal lives, to put to rights what the invaders had destroyed and re- light the Ner Tamid, the eternal light, making it again bright, making it again holy.
But when they went to do it they found that the olive oil reserved for that lamp — specially pressed, sealed, and sanctified — had been desecrated. It took seven days then, at that time, to press and consecrate jars of oil to light the Ner Tamid. One jar would burn for one night, and there was only one uncorrupted jar remaining. In my mind’s eye I see it rolled under a curtain-end or behind a bookshelf, unnoticed by the invaders but precious indeed to the returning Jews, triumphantly re-taking possession of the Temple. I imagine it happening in the rush of adrenaline after the fight, on the collective high of good news, people streaming in with their buckets and brushes and tools to make theTemple ready before Shabbat — mourning the loss of so many things and then rejoicing in the dim building to have found one jar of oil after all. Lighting it in full recognition that it wouldn’t last long enough but joyous: so joyous to have the means to make things right again after so long, and to know that the light would burn as a bright Fuck You to the retreating remnants of army; that the glow would dog those tired, defeated marchers all the way back to their ruler. We’re back, it would say, and we are not afraid of you — even wounded, even in mourning, even with loved ones captured or their whereabouts unknown. Even if all we can get out of this jar is one night’s light we’re not afraid, and we’re not waiting anymore.
Brightness. Resistance. Mourning shot all through with black-eyed, bloody joy. And the Talmud, which says comparatively little about Chanukah and its observance, is specific about one point — your menorah, your lights of Chanukah, should be displayed outside your door or in your window, on the side opposite the mezuzah; it should be visible to the street, it should say “Here we are. Here we are, and here is our brightness.”
Except, as the text notes, in times of danger. The written work that was collected as the Talmud was opened just a few hundred years after the final destruction of that Great Temple. “Times Of Danger” was not a theoretical concept.
Most years there’s a long break, about a month, between Chanukah and Transgender Day of Remembrance; not a scant ten days like this year. The long break has always been a long enough period to let me forget Trans Day or Remembrance by the time Chanukah rolls around; by then I am busy trying to finish my holiday shopping and get to all the things I have been invited to roughly on time and carrying the correct thing — scent-free host gift, appetizer since my surname begins with a B, allergy meds in case these hosts have cats — we’ve been to their house ten times but neither of us can remember. That’s what takes up my time. Giftwrap and cat dander. Trans Day of Remembrance is forgotten.
Trans Day of Remembrance, like Kwanzaa, is often derided as a “made-up holiday”, as though all the other holidays have existed since the dawn of time, as though dinosaurs strung cranberry garlands and Kiss Me I’m Irish t-shirts gained popularity during the Cretaceous period, as though observances cannot arise as needed and be valid and valued, as though this is not so human and tender. It’s the day we gather to remember our dead — those trans people, mostly trans women, mostly women of colour — who have been murdered in the previous year for the grave and terrible crime of being (or perceived to be) or transgender. Evidently, it does not matter how marginalized a group is, there’s always some extra room to shit on women and people of colour. Let it not be said that the haters — as individuals or in systems — are slacking.They know who they can best get away with targeting.
The first vigil came two weeks after Rita Hester was murdered in Boston. Hundreds of people poured into the streets in outrage when the details were released — she had been stabbed more than twenty times, and left for dead. A robbery gone bad, the police said. Probably, the police said, the work of a john, twice excusing themselves from caring upon deeming her trans and doing sex work, deeming her doubly disposable. Rita never having been a sex worker made as much difference to their conclusions as the fact that after the murder anything she was known to have worth stealing remained in her apartment, covered in her blood.
Her people lit candles and they marched. They walked down the Allston, Massachusetts street from the bar where she was last seen alive to her apartment and they stood in a bright cluster under what had been her window, first chanting and then singing. Their display was unmistakable, their sorrow as huge as their resistance — here we are, they chanted, here we are. Here we are, Rita, come to soothe your restless ghost and pray you home to wherever your Gd is, so you can sit and her right hand and rest yourself a while. Here we are, you attackers, you cowards, come now and bring your knives, and let us just see whether you can stand the heat of all these flames. Let us see whether you could even extinguish one of them. Here we are, Boston Police, and there are more of us where this came from, and we are not going to stop calling and writing and pestering you for answers and behaving as though we are entitled to them, which we are.
Every year there are more candles to light as the annual count grows. I want to love any increase of brightness, but lighting a candle for every murdered trans person in the past year is not one of those times. I wish the number of flames would dwindle. I am in that moment of the House of Shammai, he who argued that Chanukah candles should start at eight and dwindle down to one. Hillel’s method, the increase of light, was adopted instead, and it seems correct to me even when I separate it from “tradition,” also known as “the way we’ve always done it in my family ever since we started having the holiday at our house instead of Bubbe and Zayde’s.” Light should increase in times of joy; in times of sorrow, light should increase. I do not think these are contradictory positions.
We should mourn. We should notice the qualities of defeat.We should stand out in the cold wind say the names of our dead out loud l’shem shamayim, for the sake of heaven and after this is done, after each of their names has burned in our mouths, after we have tasted the bitter soot of sorrow, then we should light our candles and we should be there. We should say, we are here. We should, in sorrow and in resistance, increase the light. When the heart is dark, when the mood is dark, all we want is a little sanctified light. We want it to sputter and catch, and lift our hearts up as it does.
In the story of Chanukah, we’re brought over and over again to the understanding that the miracle of this jar of oil is only on the surface the fact that it burned longer than anyone expected that much oil to burn. That’s kind of cool, but we don’t make it a holiday. What happened in the Temple 2200 years ago is that the hearts of Jews — miserable in defeat, locked away from their source of religious observance — were in darkness. They were in despair. And when the light came back on, when they saw the international, wordless, perfect symbol of We Are Here, they rejoiced in it.
I hope that someday trans people too have the moment to call such a signal light out of darkness, that we too can celebrate our resistance with friends and family. I would enjoy it very much. But until then, we are going to have continue to resist, and we are going to have to get better and smarter and more cohesive and more compassionate and more resolute and more fabulous in our resistance. That is the light that we can call out of this darkness. We are the light that we can call out of this darkness.
And make no mistake, it will require all the qualities of a candle. It will require us to make ourselves visible, eyecatching even, when we might rather hide, and as long as we think we can stay safe we will have to do it. We will have to pay attention to how “safety” works and who gets it and why, and stand in the knowledge that racism and white supremacy keep certain people safe while endangering others, just like being or passing for cisgender — that not “looking trans” also keeps certain people safe (while endangering others). We will need the candle’s brightness, especially when things are dark — metaphorically dark, I mean, when the next report of the next murder is announced we will have to let go of muttering “such a shame” and instead celebrate what would have been her birthday with a giant cake that has the right damn name on it and deliver slices to the police station and the newspaper. We may indeed need to burn, to allow ourselves to be a little consumed by our resistance, to give something of ourselves to the fight and assume that it may not be returned, that what we sacrifice will become worthwhile in the fullness of time but is unlikely indeed to be returned to us personally. On the other hand, resistance fighters are well-known to be smarter and sneakier and more nimble and definitely better-looking than the soldiers of armies; resistance values the trickster above the blunt follower of orders.
Look for it in the wintertime, if you want to find The Light Of The Season — the real light, not the Hallmark one. Look for the location of resistance. Look for the darkness in which you can be a spark. Look for the opportunity to be bright, to light someone else’s way, to warm their hands, to shuttle them safely through the dark. Look for the crack you can fill or the shadow you can dispel by bringing a little bit of the light of resistance, carefully and tenderly, to just the place where it’s needed. Look for the place of being bright, of being bright and present outside your own house, or in the window, on the opposite side to the mezuzah, letting anyone who passes know.
We are here.