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The Comfort of the Chanukah Lights

            The word Chanukah means dedication, and refers to the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem, in the 2nd century BCE, after it had been won back from the Seleucid Greeks. So, to get my synagogue school students into the spirit of the holiday, we created a Human Chanukiah (complete with dance moves to represent each candle being lit), and I asked each of them what they wanted to dedicate themselves to this year, for Chanukah, or, given the time of year, for the New Year. And for the most part, they wanted to dedicate themselves to fun things: like sports, and candy, and getting more presents, and playing with their friends. Not one of them said they wanted to dedicate themselves to getting good grades, or doing their homework, or eating healthier food; they just wanted to live in the moment and live well, on their own terms.

“Sounds good to me.”

            I keep forgetting how much wisdom the kids have to share with us. As a teacher, I keep judging myself by my success at getting them to focus on Hebrew and prayers, and being good and generous and charitable, but that’s not what they want most for themselves. Just because their parents want them to do well in school, and be good at sports, and end up in successful careers that earn them enough money to send their own kids to synagogue school, that doesn’t mean that that’s what motivates the kids to get up each morning. And I think the most important thing I can do for them is to focus on what they really want and who they really are, so they know that they matter to the people around them. Because if, someday, they feel motivated to work hard and be kind and accomplish great things for society, it needs to come from their own values and feelings and beliefs, and not just from the hope of pleasing other people. When things get hard, which they always do, the thing that will keep them going in the midst of all of that work is the ability to find joy and meaning in who they actually are, and the light they have inside of them.

Miss Ellie, full of light

            I struggle with this all the time, because I keep getting confused about whose goals I should be working towards, mine, or the people who are judging my accomplishments or lack thereof. And I thought about this a lot this past week when I heard that Stephen “Twitch” Boss, a dancer and judge from So You Think You Can Dance and DJ on The Ellen Show, had killed himself, at age forty, leaving behind a wife and three children. I don’t know why he did it. There seems to have been a suicide note mentioning past challenges, but I don’t know if that made things clear to his family and close friends or if it was too vague even for them to understand. So, of course, I’ve been trying to process the loss in my own way.

            I felt a lot of different things at the news: disbelief, of course, because he was such a passionate, charming, talented, and seemingly happy person; grief, because even though I never met him, his dancing and his humor and his kindness and his patience with other people all made him seem like someone I’d want to know; anger, at him, for choosing to go and not to continue to share his love and talent and light with us; sadness, at how much pain he must have been in to see suicide as the only answer, and to so completely prevent anyone from stopping him once he’d decided to die; and anger again, that he had a gun, because guns are the most efficient way to kill yourself, and maybe if he’d used another method he could have been reached in time to receive the life-saving help he didn’t know how to ask for; and then I felt fear, that if he could be overcome by his darkest emotions, despite all of his talent and love and resources and friends, what’s going to save me if I fall into the deep dark again? And then I felt survivor’s guilt, for being so lucky as to have found the right kind of support, and medication, and therapy, to not be in the place he was in.

I’ve been comforted by how many people loved him, and cared about him, and were deeply impacted by his death. Grief is easier to bear when it’s shared, and when the value of the lost one is so completely acknowledged and understood.

            And I’ve also seen a lot of posts and videos on social media professing knowledge about why he killed himself, looking for clues and conspiracies or people to blame. It’s his wife’s fault, or Ellen DeGeneres’ fault, or he was in a financial hole because someone cheated him, or he didn’t kill himself, he was murdered. And I understand the impulse, the need, to make sense of a loss that is so hard to accept. I want something to grab hold of too. I want an explanation. Most of all I want it to not have happened. Even if he never danced again or never showed himself in the public eye, it would be better to be able to think of him as alive, and living the life he wanted for himself.

But I’ve also been watching his old dance routines on YouTube, and I can’t help wishing that he could have been given more opportunities to share his gifts, more time on stage and screen, more time with great choreographers. His dancing reminded me of Gene Kelly, with the charismatic full body presence he had, and the humor and warmth and energy that filled every step, and I could picture him in those MGM musicals, dancing on the ceilings and singing in the rain, because he was the kind of leading man you could believe in, and love, and root for. And he was a dancer who could capture your heart no matter what style of dance he tried. But maybe that’s just me wishing for things for him that he didn’t want for himself.

            What I want to learn from his death, and what I want to make sure my students know, is that even when you don’t achieve all of the goals you set for yourself, or the goals others set for you, you still matter and you still deserve to take up space in the world. And if you can hold onto who you really are, and the things that bring you joy, that can be what brings you back from the brink when the darkness sneaks up and tries to convince you that life isn’t worth living anymore. We all deserve joy, and love, and time to play with our friends, and all of the presents we want, even if we can’t always get those things.

            After a Jewish funeral, and then yearly on the anniversary of the death, Jews light a memorial candle, a yahrzeit candle, that is meant to last twenty four hours, to mark the memory of the loved one and the light they brought to the world, and I feel like Chanukah, with its eight days of light, came at just the right time to support me through the loss of Twitch and his light; eight days of manufactured light, to fill the void left by the passing of his natural bright light. It’s a small comfort, a metaphorical comfort, but it is real.

            I feel so lucky that Twitch existed and had a platform to share his light for as long as he was able. I wished for more for him, and from him, but what a gift he already was! I hope that his friends can bring light into the lives of his wife and children, and his mother and grandfather, for as long as they need it in order to get to a place where their own light can shine again, and when the memory of Twitch can bring them more light than grief.

            Zichrono livracha, may his memory be a blessing.

Here are some clips to watch, if you want to share some of the light Twitch brought to the world:

Katee and Twitch – Mercy - https://youtu.be/nhrxfHCtMJA
Alex and Twitch – Outta Your Mind - https://youtu.be/TLtSfYX8tJk
Kherington & Twitch - Dreaming With a Broken Heart - https://youtu.be/cufPoqE21ko
Sasha and Twitch - Misty Blue - https://youtu.be/l4cbpCs_E9g
SYTYCD Stephen "Twitch" Boss solos - https://youtu.be/3KlCG9OpWNM
Twitch and Allison dance to "Bebot" by the Black Eyed Peas - https://youtu.be/giqyscyp9XY

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?