Wherever you are north of the equator, this is the very darkest time of the year. In Jerusalem, the sun set today at 4:30. The overnight temperatures have been dipping into the 30’s recently, which feels cold even for this Minnesota guy. Hanukkah, the Jewish People’s festival of light, comes at the perfect time. And there is nothing quite like Hanukkah in Jerusalem.
I adore the homemade sufganiyot that I have enjoyed in the homes of my Minnesota friends, but nothing prepared me for the spectacle of these tasty and almost outrageous Hanukkah treats in Israel. In doing my research for this piece (yes, this is a tough gig), I visited Rolidin and saw throngs of people from all over the world inspecting a huge range of flavored donuts…well, in America we think of them as donuts but this doesn’t begin to do them justice. I came home with a treat covered with cherry glaze, pistachio cream and a cherry on top, and the center was filled with more pistachio cream. It was simply amazing. There is a serious devotion to the art of the sufganiyah that is unique to Hanukkah in Israel
Hanukkah is for Everyone
Despite Hanukkah’s Jewish context, it is a holiday that seems to be enjoyed by everyone; secular or religious, Jewish or not. And unlike in the U.S., Hanukkah in Israel is a very public holiday. Boaz Dorot, a Jerusalem musician, composer and arranger, says the he feels the holiday everywhere he goes. “Hanukkah is celebrated all around you. When you walk in a neighborhood, you can hear families simultaneously gathering and singing, each in their home.” But this doesn’t happen just at home. “Every office and company celebrates Hanukkah. Companies do big candle-lighting gatherings, which unite everyone. Suddenly, the big boss lights a candle and everyone hears him singing the blessing. It’s like an informal excuse to gather together, to meet, and to eat!”
Almost every evening event that takes place during Hanukkah will begin with lighting candles, making blessings, and singing Maoz Tzur, even if it’s in a completely secular context. This includes classical music and rock concerts, large soccer games, malls, hospitals, banks. In short, almost every sphere of public life.
It is the public nature of Hanukkah in Israel that makes the season special. Boaz notes that, unlike many other Jewish holidays, this is a secular chag. “The country keeps on going, everyone works, nothing is shut down (except for school), so it gives everyone an opportunity to celebrate a Jewish festival, in a secular manner, and mixing Orthodox and secular people in public spaces.”
Boaz continues, “Even in an Arab restaurant in Jaffa, you can find yourself eating at in a room filled with foreign people, and then everyone stands up, the waiter brings in a hanukiah, and magic happens…you find yourself singing Maoz Tzur in an embarrassing, yet happy, bizarre setting.”
A Festival of Light in a Heavy Place
As many have said about Israel, we are living in a tough neighborhood. Israelis refer to the constant social-political-military tension as ha matzav, the situation. And with the eruption of a series of lone-wolf attacks on city streets and in towns and settlements across the country, it has been a rough autumn. While Israelis are generally very good at enjoying life, it appears to me that there has been a weight on the collective shoulders of the population.
The lights of Hanukkah have set loose a lightness of being onto the streets of Jerusalem. It is palpable as families walk together in search of sufganiyot, as co-workers gather to light candles, and as the guy who does my laundry sticks his head out of his shop to wish me “Hanukkah sameach,” when I pass by. There’s dancing in the streets, and a nightly light and music show projected on the walls of the Old City.
In Israel, Hanukkah is infectious. The dark winter sky is aglow with holiday lights, the cold night air is warmed, and our hearts are cracked open by the shared joy of family, friends and strangers.
Chag urim sameach M’Yerushalayim!
Since coming to Israel last spring, I have developed a new habit: trying to notice everything. Most of the things that I see and sometimes photograph end up being tiny items that seem to be of little consequence—the surprise of beautiful flowers that take my breath away, small interactions with Israelis that are amusing or exasperating, amazing landscapes, quirky items found in unexpected places, cats (which are the squirrels of Jerusalem). Most of the items I notice and comment on stay in my head and fade away. A few find their way to my Facebook feed. And a very small number of them, experiences or interactions that seemed perhaps more interesting or substantial (or, truth be told, appropriate to share with an audience), have been the subjects of posts I’ve written for the community of readers at TC Jewfolk. And right now I feel completely at a loss as to how to share about what it is like to be in Israel, and to also be watching America, at this moment.
I feel too numbed to list the outbursts of hate, sometimes enacted with knives, guns, or rocks; or the statements of political leaders and special-interest stakeholders that often look more like verbal violence than constructive dialogue. But if you keep up with the news in Israel, the Middle East and the U.S., you know the list I’m talking about. The world is experiencing so much darkness, and I’m afraid.
Our early human ancestors lit fires to ward off the dark, and the cold and danger it brought with it. Parents of small children know all too well that darkness can be a nightly nemesis. They combat it with night lights, hugs and whispered words of love and assurance. As humans we struggle against the dark. But Rabbi Ruth Kagan taught recently on Shabbat Breishit that perhaps the darkness just is. It is not good or bad. It merely exists. Her simple suggestion challenged my numbness and brought me back to Creation.
We all know how the story begins:
When God began to create heaven and earth – the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water – God said “let there be light;” and there was light. God saw that the light was good and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness God called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, a first day. (Breishit (Genesis) 1:1-5. JPS translation, adapted).
In the opening of our Creation story God calls out for light, which is separated from darkness, and then God calls it good. In the very first moment of goodness in the universe, light was brought out from darkness.
Early humans learned that in the dark their eyes did not allow them to see dangerous predators that may be lurking and ready to strike. As children emerge from infancy and their developing brains begin to comprehend how separate and autonomous each of us are, they fear the profound aloneness they experience at night, tucked into their beds. Perhaps our fear of the darkness is a learned response to the human experience.
Our Creation story shows us that light is dawn from darkness; we cannot have one without the other. The mystic tradition of Kabbalah offers us a way to find meaning in darkness.
In a very basic partial re-telling of the story from a kabbalistic perspective, before Creation all that existed was filled with God. The tradition teaches that when God desired to create the world, God contracted into Godself so that there was an unoccupied space in which Creation could begin. What would it mean if, that instead of only presenting despair, the darkness of world events represents a potential in which we can make light?
This question is not intended to simplify the complex situations from which recent and long-standing violence erupted into Creation. Far from it. But for those of us who experience fear, despair or hopelessness in these painful times – me, too – it is possible to draw strength from remembering that darkness precedes light and that evening inevitably leads to morning, every day.
If the numbness of fear recedes in the presence of campfires, and soothing words, and the remembrance of our Creation story – even just a little – then we can walk into the light, carried by our next steps in repairing the world.
Image: Montreal Botanical Garden
Is a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem. He recently left his day job as a therapist, counselor, and consultant to follow his surprising dream of becoming a rabbi, and will be writing about his experiences during his year in Israel.