Planning our trip to New York with my husband, my friend Mia insisted that we go visit the Jewish Museum on 5th Avenue. She told me about some of the exhibits and how well done the museum is. Then she said something that really stayed with me: “What I didn’t like was that it made the Jewish people look like history.” Walking through the exhibits made Mia feel like the Jews were a people of the past. I mentally filed her comments away as I added the museum to the itinerary.

I thought that the Jewish Museum was really gorgeous and interesting. The history teacher in me would have spent hours there, if not for the hunger pains that eventually struck. It was in the Culture and Continuity exhibit, a permanent exhibit at the museum, that I remembered what Mia had said. There is art, modern interpretations of ceremonial objects, among many other mementoes of Jewish culture and history. There are also a lot of religious artifacts. I saw a wall of menorahs and a glass case filled with Torah scrolls. There are candlesticks, prayer books, Passover Seder plates and Purim groggers.

As I gazed at the beautiful exhibit of Torah scrolls, I was reminded of a beautiful and haunting song “The Place Where I Belong”. The song is told from the perspective of a Torah scroll that was created in Kiev. It lived through beautiful life cycle events, was hidden during World War II, then found and put in a museum. All the Torah scroll wants is to go back to a synagogue, the place where it belongs.

These are not items that belong behind glass signifying an ancient people who are no longer here.

As I looked at the ritual objects, beautifully lit and displayed in their cases, I couldn’t help but be sad. These items had a heyday, a moment in which they truly shined. While they are appreciated and pondered by tens of thousands of visitors a year, is the museum really where they belong? Those candlesticks lit a home for Shabbat. That Torah scroll was used to give testimony of our history as a people. Those Purim groggers drowned out the poor Megillah readers time and time again. That wall of menorahs…

These are not items that belong behind glass signifying an ancient people who are no longer here. It was as if I could hear each object crying out to be freed and used in joyous celebration today. In a way this is what the victory of Hanukkah represents.

Hanukkah is a time in which we publicize the miracle of our victory over the Hellenists. They tried to kill us, we survived...let’s light a menorah! Yet, Hanukkah is more than that. What makes Hanukkah unique is that we were not just battling the Hellenists, we were battling ourselves. Hanukkah was a cultural civil war amongst the Jewish people. Do we assimilate or do we stand apart? The Maccabees stood apart from the majority of Jews at the time and sent the message that Judaism is vitally important and has significant value.

After more than three thousand years, the Jewish people are here, making an impact on the world today.

Every year, beginning on the 25th of Kislev, millions of homes are lit up to send a message. The Greeks and the Hellenists are remembered only in history books and schoolrooms. The Jewish people are a living, breathing entity. We survived! We are still here!

I think the Jewish Museum is a must-see in New York but in some ways it acts as a continuation of the civil war we fought in the time of Hanukkah. We must remember that we are not a people behind glass. We are not a people of archaic ritual whose time has passed. This was the argument of the Hellenists and the Jews who supported them. They believed the Greek lifestyle and what it represented was better and more relevant than the Jewish lifestyle. Today, the struggle continues. There are so many things in our culture that draws people away from seeing the present importance of Judaism and the Jewish people. It is all too common to see people relegate Judaism to the past.

As we celebrate Hanukkah, think of that museum wall of menorahs that won’t be lit. They will bear testimony to a piece of our history, but they will not be fulfilling the purpose for which they were made. Those menorahs were created for one purpose: to be lit. The purpose of lighting a menorah is to tell the world that the Jewish people and our values are still alive and well. An unlit menorah in a museum implies that we are a people of the past, and the time of needing to light a menorah is long gone. This is absolutely not true. After more than three thousand years, the Jewish people are here, making an impact on the world today.

As our windows are warmly lit by our candles, we connect one link in a chain that extends back in history. But we are not history. Each of us has a purpose that we are here to fulfill. The Jewish victory on Hanukkah made that possible, declaring the Jewish people and the Jewish values we hold dear are eternal, transcending time and place.