I can’t believe we’ve been here for a few years. Even so, when it comes to Chanukah, I still feel that same excitement I felt the first time we celebrated it as new Olim in our homeland. I didn't realize just how deep the disconnection with all things secular in America was until a recent conversation with my Mom. As she described my brother's vacation on the 23rd and 24th of December, I asked her if it was a holiday or something.
“It's X-mas!” my mother piped up, in total disbelief. Like, only the entire world knows what holiday falls on those dates! What my mother forgets is that here in our Blessed Land we are not constantly bombarded or reminded since the end of October when the pumpkins are just being put away, and the Jack'o lanterns are beginning to rot. My mailbox is not overflowing with 'holiday' themed catalogs, and red and green trees are not to be seen. The flora and fauna around me doesn't suddenly sprout colorful blinking lights. Reindeer (especially those sporting red noses) are basically extinct. In short—Gan Eden! And after five plus years of breathing in the kedusha of Eretz Yisrael, the 23rd and 24th of December became just that—two regular days in the Gregorian calendar.
The first and most obvious pleasure of being in Israel this time of year is that the only men you see with long white beards are those who are wearing black coats. No man in the red suit in sight. No flashing colored lights. No green and red plastered on any store fronts. Not a one. Here, we are absolutely oblivious on what day the ‘big day’ actually falls. Yes, there is actually a place on this earth where the big arm of the catalog behemoth does not reach, and we are blessed to be totally clueless about the latest twenty eight inch Bob Sponge whatever –his-name-is who dances and sings and twirls in a 360 degree pirouette with accompanying ukulele accoutrements—all for the low price of $28.99!
Here we have been overdosing on suffganyot (fried doughnuts filled with jelly—or caramel as the case may be) since Simchas Torah. Supermarkets display an endless supply of menorahs, chocolate covered Chanukah gelt, candles, oil—you name it. The entire nation puts aside their differences for eight days, as they wish each other a Chanukah Sameach. Everything shuts down early—so that everyone can light their menorahs with their loved ones. As you stand on the street after dark,you see menorah upon menorah—lights upon lights—lights belonging to us, bridging century upon century of Jews keeping the fires of Yiddishkeit burning, living—in our Land.
Even the dreidle—a simple dreidle brings home the knowledge that living in Israel is, well—miraculous. Our son, looking at an Israeli dreidel for the first time, suddenly burst out, “hey—there’s no ‘Shin’ on this dreidle!’. Upon closer inspection, we found a ‘Pey’ where the shin should have been. In the rest of the world, the letters ‘Nun gimmel, Hay, Shin’ stand for “a big miracle happened THERE’. But for us living in Eretz Israel, it’s “Nun, Gimmel, Hay, Pey’—“a big miracle happened HERE’. Here. In our backyard (almost literally—Modiin is but a drive away). Here. Not there but here. Jews all over the world light menorahs and celebrate a miracle that happened not too far away from our living room, in a place that is still seeing miracles to this very day.
How do you describe the simple pleasure of celebrating Chanukah in a place where everyone is also rushing home to light their menorah? It’s a communal event, where every single one of your neighbors is celebrating with you. Our holiday. Our land. Here we don’t take second place as ‘the consolation holiday ‘. Here, our holiday is THE holiday. Here everything stops for Chanukah. Everything revolves around lighting the menorah, not the other way around. No jingles in the supermarket overloading your subconscious. In their stead, Jewish children walk around singing Chanukah songs, filling the air with their pure words. How does one grasp it? Here it is a tangible. You are enveloped in it day and night, not just as you huddle with your family around the menorah. I can’t describe how wonderful it is not to have to endure another “Merry (insert name of holiday here)”, while internally screaming, “But I’m Jewish!” No generic “Happy holiday” greetings either. Here, your taxi driver wishes you a “Chanukah Sameach,” and your soul responds, because it feels right. That’s the magic of living in Israel.
The other major difference is that Chanukah in Israel is not so much about the presents—it’s about the miracle. When you live in a country that exists because of one long continuous miracle sustained by HaShem—it’s the miracle that counts. When a sonic boom breaks the silence of the night sky, as army planes ‘do their job’ up North—and the realization that this little country with a spirit which is too big to fill its borders—is being guarded by HaShem and His emissaries because we have a right to be here—then the miracle that is Israel—that is Chanukah—takes on a whole new meaning.
As we read about the battles fought by Judah Maccabee and his army, the mind can't help but marvel at the fact that not much has changed since those days, except for the fact that technologically, warfare has evolved drastically, to say the least. We are still the few against the many. A small nation surrounded by those who would love nothing more than to see our destruction. The story of Chanukah is not a quaint and inspiring story that we celebrate as part of our past—it is also the story of our present.
I remember two years ago, during Operation Cast Lead, as we lit our menorahs with the backdrop of a war going on at several of our borders. Stories of soldiers requesting tzitzit before they would go into battle streamed out to the public. And that is what Chanukah is about. Keeping our identity separate and whole from the rest of the nations as we do spiritual and physical battle with our adversaries. Looking at our uniqueness not as an impairment, but an asset to be celebrated and protected at all costs. For when we act like Jews, proud in ourselves, our Land and our Torah—then defeating our enemies becomes a reality, with the help of our Creator.
It is only by the benevolence of HaShem that Israel and the Jewish people exist. Without the Land of Israel, there is no nation, and vice versa. It is here that the plans for Am Israel took root, and it is here where they will culminate when Moshiach comes (may it be speedily in our days).Even though we wandered for centuries without a 'home', HaShem has gifted us in the last 60 years with concrete borders to come home to. A Kotel to pray at. Land to be populated and bring back to life. He is setting the stage for our ultimate return and Redemption (may it be His will).To be here and call this home—despite the hardships—is a miracle. As painful as it is to be so far from loved ones, friends and all things familiar—there is nothing like the miracle of finally coming home. Home where the soul and body are finally in alignment for the very first time. That is a miracle all its own.
Even as I write, it is impossible to describe in mere words the enormity of living here. Sometimes it’s a struggle, sometimes it’s a cultural shock, sometimes it’s just plain hard. And sometimes, while standing at the top of a hill, looking out at the valley, and at cities that were not here that long ago, brimming with Jews—and the eyes fill at the intensity of the knowledge that you are home—finally—then you say, “Thank you HaShem for the miracle that is Israel. Thank you for bringing me home.”