Chanukah rolled around about halfway through my year living in Jerusalem while a student at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, the Reform movement’s seminary. That year in Jerusalem, I would walk about 20 minutes from my apartment to school every day. One morning, as Chanukah approached, my brisk walks were unexpectedly scented by wafts of yeasty, sugary, rich donuts lined by the dozen in shop windows. Store after store set out beautiful trays of donuts: colorful, creative, and cakey. I don’t think I’ve ever tasted a donut as good as your average sufganiyah in Israel during Chanukah.
So much about my year in Israel was memorable or personally transformative. I don’t think that anything prepared me for what Chanukah in Jerusalem would feel like. We often talk about Shabbat in Jerusalem being a palpable encounter with Jewish life lived in Jewish time and it most certainly is. For most Americans who travel to Israel, you will experience Shabbat over the course of a visit and get to experience how different it feels. You get used to the rhythm of the city quieting down on Friday afternoon, seeing folks walking, taking time on Shabbat, and the entire place coming alive again with an incredible vibrancy motzaei Shabbat, after Shabbat, when the sun goes down Saturday night. An encounter with Chanukah, however, is much harder to come by on our American tourist schedules.
My Chanukah in Israel was both perfectly ordinary and incredibly special, like living a winter tale from a childhood storybook. In America, it is not secret, that Chanukah is often blown way out of proportion to its religious significance. A congregant once shared that an employer lovingly offered him all 8 days of Chanukah off from work, thinking that would be religiously required. A generous offer, indeed, but Jewish people are intended to work on Chanukah. During Chanukah, much of life goes on as usual, with the exception of adding festive foods and lighting candles each of the eight nights. For many American Jews, we are doing just this. Chanukah is on our minds, we light candles, we sing songs, we host parties, and – in Charlotte – might even stop by the Krispy Kreme drive through at some point.
Chanukah in Israel felt the same, just better. Yes, there were multiple opportunities to buy seasonal donuts on every single block. Yes, there were chanukiyyot beautifully lit in nearly every window I passed. Of course, there were special events throughout the city. Yet, as a graduate student, I continued to go to school, others worked, and life went on as usual, except for the moments we stopped to light candles and sing and take a break with the bountiful donuts. It felt so much like my American home and so completely like a spiritual and ancient home that we long for as American Jews. My Chanukah in Israel was a double affirmation that we are doing OK in the US and that there is not now and will never be a place quite like Israel to live out our Jewish lives. Both can be true.
Like so many Jewish Americans my age, I have loved Israel since I was a tiny girl. That love grows and matures with every childhood school project on Israel, with college encounters with anti-Zionism, and for me with each of the visits I have been able to make over the last 20 years of adulthood. True love is not always easy. True love certainly requires lots of work and most things worth having do.
I hope that you explore your love for Israel. Read the news. Consume the culture: movies and tv, music and so much more. Most importantly, go there. Go to Israel in your lifetime and, if you can, go again and again.
As we kindle these Chanukah lights, may we bring much light and joy into this beautiful world. Happy Chanukah.