My American Hanukah’s were tainted by Christmas. Without even realizing it, the way my family celebrated Hanukah was a reflection, not of our Jewish holiday or it’s true meaning but rather of the holiday that our Christian friends and neighbors were celebrating.
The homes of our Christian friends were covered in Christmas decorations. Our home was covered in Hanukah decorations. They had snowflakes pasted on the windows and so did we. They had banners that said: “Merry Christmas”. We had banners that said “Happy Hanukah”. My Christian friends had presents under the Christmas tree. I had eight nights of presents (on the table). Their holiday was fun and so was mine.
And while I grew up understanding the concept of Christmas I don’t think I fully understood the concept of Hanukah. There is an almost unfathomable chasm between celebrating a great miracle that happened THERE and a great miracle that happened HERE.
My diaspora Hanukah vs my Israeli Hanukah illustrates how much influence Israel has on my Jewish identity.
While it is difficult to imagine living in the time of the Maccabees and being forced to bow down to Greek idols it is easy for me to identify with Jewish warriors who refuse to bend before the enemy. I don’t have to imagine them. I live with them.
In Israel, my Hanukah celebrations are nothing like the celebrations of my American childhood.
While I still have the box of Hanukah decorations from the USA, I have not opened it in years. I once showed the kids the bizarre foreign dreidels that have the wrong letters on them – instead of saying what they had always seen, the letters that stand for “A great miracle happened HERE,” my American dreidels say “A great miracle happened THERE.”
In Israel, kids have vacation from school during Hanukah, but parents go to work. The holiday is celebrated in the evening, lighting candles together, eating traditional food. It is a time of joy, fun, and games. At the same time, it is not the complete break from normal routine that other holidays are.
Hanukah is a holiday, a celebration of life, of faith, of tenacity and most of all – sovereignty. This is a holiday of the Nation of Israel, a celebration of a small indigenous people who managed to retake our land from a foreign occupying power much stronger than ourselves. This is a celebration in gratitude for the God of Israel who fought wars for our ancestors and created miracles for them.
In Israel, this concept is not theoretical or something of a mythological past. It’s the reality we live every day, something that is very difficult to understand without actually experiencing.
I live in a neighborhood that is full of secular Jews (like myself). Every family celebrates the holiday in their own way but the celebrations are insular. Our neighborhood has much the same atmosphere as it always does.
In search for a stronger experience of the Jewish side of Hanukah, I took a walk through the Orthodox neighborhood of Haifa. There, the atmosphere was completely different.
As I walked down the street my nose was filled with the smell of cooking oil and potatoes. Latkes. In home after home mothers were cooking.
The sun had gone down but it was not yet completely dark. Window after window opened and fathers, surrounded by their children lit their Hanukiah. The quiet neighborhood was filled with the sound of small voices singing.
Maoz Tzur, is a song everyone sings after they light their Hanukiah. Very often secular families sing only the first verse. As I walked, I heard verses I had never heard sung before – they spoke of being saved from the soldiers of Pharaoh, being returned to Israel from exile in Babylon, of Haman who, instead of succeeding in his plot to have all the Jews in ancient Persia slaughtered was himself killed, of the oppression of the Greeks in the days of the Maccabees and of the miracle of Hanukah.
Not one miracle but countless miracles. Salvation from genocide not once but many, many times over. Coming back to our land not once, but again and again.
I walked past windows glowing with the lights of Hanukah. The lights remind us of the miracle of survival, of the light that should have gone out but didn’t. Jews around the world celebrate this miracle with the same ritual lights but there is something about celebrating in Israel that is different.
My Israel Hanukah has nothing to do with the holiday of my Christian friends and neighbors. It has everything to do with the land I am walking on.
Being alive, Jewish and free in our own land, the land of our ancestors, is nothing short of miraculous.