Hanukkah in Israel

By the end of November the longed-for and desperately needed rains have begun. We are inclined to stay at home, sipping soup and baking. The first soufganiot appear in the bakeries.

Recently, we have not only the usual jelly donuts, but those of designer quality. They are proudly on display in bakeries and malls, each more tempting and fattening than the next! People begin wearing scarves and gloves and an anticipatory atmosphere is in the air. We have just recovered from the fall holidays, there are a few weeks in between, and we are already preparing for Hanukkah.

Those who are affluent make plans to travel abroad during the week in which schools are closed and the kids are free from the classroom. This year Hanukkah and Christmas coincide so the schools in the Arab sector will be closed as well.

Christmas decorations are in the stores in Bethlehem, and plans are made to get together. By the first of December, many have already gotten a tree!

Many of us have Palestinian Christians friends and we will often go to their homes, bearing our soufganiot and decorating their trees, or they will come to ours! Despite what one may hear on the news, there is a great deal of coexistence happening here in Israel, whether the radicals like it or not.

I teach advanced English at a music school, so I will bring in songs and/or Hanukkah stories. The kids know the songs better than I do, as well as the history, but we explore the deeper meaning of the holiday, the “lesson for life,” and what it might mean for us in the coming year.

We know the story. The Greeks wanted to Hellenize the Jews and some brave Maccabees said “NO!” With words and deeds they resisted the attempted forced conversion. They overcame, the little bit of oil they had burned in the Temple for eight days, and we celebrate the victory of the few against the many, the weak against the strong, and the resilient against the passive. We celebrate our privilege and our determination to retain our identity and our right to live as we want to live. We resist the world’s attempts to force us into its mold.

I asked the students to write about what they think the lessons are. Some wrote about the Holocaust. We thought we were safe, but we were not. Therefore, we must remain vigilant. We must fight against the waves of rhetoric attempting to rob us of our inheritance and birthright. Some wrote that we realize that we are stronger together. We realize that we must use what we have before more is provided.

Those of us who are Messianic Jews remember our Rabbi who used a little boy’s lunch to feed five thousand people. We never know how much a little bit, given to God for the sake of others, will matter. It multiplies. It always multiplies.

It is cold outside. We are tempted to snuggle up by our own fires to stay warm. But, instead we join with other fires so we may be warmer still, and experience more light. We begin with a “Shamash,” a servant candle. This candle lights the first one in the menorah. It uses its light to light another. Those of us who are parents and teachers know that we are responsible for kindling the light of hope in others. We are nothing if not inspirational. We must provide fire, inspiration, warmth, light, and hope.

We wander around the streets of Jerusalem and see, in modest and comfortable homes alike, menorahs in window sills. Each night, a candle is added. Each night, the flames are brighter still. Each night, we reaffirm hope, light, strength, and resolve. Each night we follow the advice of Helen Keller, who said, “It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.”

So, we light first two, then three, then four…until we have eight candles burning (nine including the Shamash). Each candle reminds us to keep our own lights burning and our lamps lit, because we never know who we may be motivating, and when or where our Lord will come for us.

We light the wax candles and resolve to remain a living, breathing candle, filled with warmth and light, to inspire hope and confidence. As we wander the cold, stone streets, we see other lights, reminding us that we are not alone. We peek into each other’s windows and see families eating oily foods and singing, laughing, arguing, and playing.

I taught my kids how to play “Dreidel” with the letters נ ג ה פ on them. In Israel, a great miracle happened here, and these are what the letters symbolize. If the ג comes up we “get” the pot of candy wrapped up as coins. If the ה comes up we get half. If the פ comes we “put” in a coin and if the נ comes up nothing happens.

Even though they are now young adults they like the tradition and the potato pancakes with applesauce or sour cream that we eat. I also fry up chicken schnitzel, dripping with oil and cholesterol. Hanukkah in Israel! We began with food and will end with food. We joke that Jewish history consists of three sentences: They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat!

So as we huddle in our coats and scarves and join others at their tables, we once again reaffirm our community and our covenantal promises with he who remains faithful, even after so many years.

Happy Hanukkah!

This article originally appeared on First Fruits of Zion, December 25, 2016, and reposted with permission.