I just spent a whirlwind eight days in Israel; full of listening and learning – and a lot of sitting in rooms and meeting important people. My time in Jerusalem has given me many things to think about, and wrestle with, as all good trips to Jerusalem do. And as with all trips to Israel, this journey got me thinking about the last time I was in Israel.
Unlike this trip, which took place in Jewish time during the month of Cheshvan, the only month of our calendar that is void of holidays, my previous trip to Israel coincided with all eight days of Chanukah. I didn’t think about it when I was planning my trip dates; my rabbinic school semester ended December 12th and December 28th, 2014 returned me to Seattle in time to bring in the new year with my family. But as it turned out, those dates overlapped entirely with Chanukah that year.
I would not have known if I had not been there in Israel to see it, but Chanukah, it seems, is the perfect holiday for Jewish Israelis. The most observant in the country get their ritual in, without the super-stringent “no-no’s” that come with “full holiday” Jewish law observance (restrictions from cooking and driving and such). The most secular of the population appreciate the time off from school and work. And everyone loves the donuts. As a bonus, lighting the Chanukiah is a ritual in which all are able to partake, which results in a really lovely inclusive and festive atmosphere that wafts through the streets along with the sugary scent of sufganiyot.
On a walk through the neighborhood of Katamon one night, on our way to a multi-faith candle-lighting at the Old Train Station in Emek Refaim, we watched through the foggy glass as twenty yeshiva bochers lit their Chanukiyot, causing the entire windowsill to glimmer with hundreds of tiny little lights. From my view from the street of their picture-perfect windowsill-framed yeshiva moment, watching them doing their yeshiva thing in their yeshiva clothes, I wondered for a moment if maybe this really was 1820 and maybe we were really in Poland. And that didn’t make me angry, and I didn’t feel like they were backwards or old-fashioned. In that moment, they were just beautiful kids, lighting Chanukah candles, reminding me just how long we’ve been doing this candle-lighting thing for.
Each night, we joined an entire country in lighting our own Chanukiyot – adding one each night, marking time with little dancing flames, surrounded by community. We saw small Chanukiyot and large Chanukiyot, oil-burning and candle-burning and colorful electric Chanukiyot.
And even with all of the real tensions ever-present in Israel – a place where, if we’re looking at the world with eyes wide open, a real and important contingent of the population does not celebrate Chanukah… even with all of the challenges and all of the heartache, my heart was so grateful to have experienced Chanukah in Israel. It was a reminder that when we all commit to bringing a little more light into the world, we are able see each other a bit more clearly.
Two years later, I will not be in Israel for Chanukah – but I carry with me the truth of the message I learned on that trip. Life is not always easy, or uplifting. But when we continue to light the lights, and sing the songs, and gather with loved ones; when we continue to create vibrancy in the world, especially in the literal darkest days of our year, we bring to each other that light and hope and love.