Editor’s note: Chanukah is over now, as is Christmas, but the warmth of the holidays can last well beyond the actual dates. I am so thrilled for this unique look into what Chanukah is like in the one Jewish-majority country on the planet. For more of Tamara Parkhurst’s awesome writing, click here to visit her index page.
I had the amazing opportunity to spend a year in Israel after I was married. My husband and I lived in a tiny basement apartment in a neighborhood of Jerusalem. We did not have much space or many possessions of our own, but I look back on those days with such affection. As we celebrate the holiday of Chanukah this year, I sit by my window looking at the flames dancing in the little glass cups on my chanukiah remembering my Chanukah in Israel.
Chanukah is a time of joy, rededication, and celebrating the underdog. It is a time that is filled with miracles historically, and time to remind ourselves that miracles still happen today. The quick story of Chanukah is the brave Maccabees fought off the tyrannical rule of the Greeks who had desecrated the holy Temple. In the process they broke all the jars of pure olive oil used for lighting the menorah, except one. This one jar of oil was used to light the menorah in an act of rededicating the Temple to its intended holy purpose. The jar was only enough for one night and by a miracle lasted eight days until new oil could be made and brought to the Temple.
Walking around Jerusalem during the holiday looks quite different than walking around my neighborhood in Phoenix. There is light in every window, but not the strings of lights hanging from the houses. No, these are windows filled with the warm glow of the chanukiah’s lights, glowing brighter each night with the additional candles added. The streets are filled with people singing and dancing. Even the signs for the bus stops are festive, wishing people a Happy Chanukah! The bakeries have more than their usual goodies; they have sufganiyot (jelly donuts). In other words, not only are there feelings of joy and happiness, but also a greater feeling of inclusion and connection. It is a truly magical time to be in Jerusalem.
The Old City of Jerusalem is a walled area of the much larger modern city, with entrance gates around the border. The outer walls are lit with designs of stone oil jars, menorahs, and dreidels, making it a beautiful area to walk past. The year we were there, we enjoyed a beautiful light walk through the Old City. It was on the major streets and walkways we had walked dozens of times before, but seeing the paved streets and weather-smoothed stone walls illuminated in this way brought out a certain magic. It was beautiful to say the least. Within the walls of the Old City is the Kotel, the last remaining wall of the Jewish Temple, where many people go to pray and connect. During the nights of Chanukah, it is one of several places that does a public candle lighting. Additionally, visiting the Old City and the Kotel helped bring Chanukah to life for me. After all, the events we learn and celebrate happened right there!
There was also so much to explore outside of the Old City. One of my favorites as a young adult was to walk through Machane Yehuda Shuk (outdoor market) and buy fresh fish, dried fruits and nuts, but most especially, the variety of sufganiyot. There were many other vendors; in fact, I found some of the best cheeses and spices there, but on Chanukah, the smell of donuts filled the air. Not far from there, I enjoyed grabbing a bite to eat or some frozen yogurt at Ben Yehuda Street, a promenade with a variety of shops and eateries. During the nights of Chanukah, you could find street performers putting on a show, or have a chance to dance and sing with total strangers. It is delightful to feel that connection and such joy!
One of the goals on our year long trip to Israel was to purchase some of the Judaica items that are generally less expensive in Israel. Geula is a religious neighborhood in Jerusalem and the place to buy Judaica. My husband and I walked through the neighborhood looking into shops until we found one with the perfect chanukiah. We also found many other beautiful pieces, but at that time we just wanted a chanukiah to take home with us, one that we would use for years to come – and we still use it every year! A word of caution to travelers: Geula is a religious neighborhood and as such, if you plan to visit, please visit respectfully. Men will generally only speak to men, and women are expected to dress modestly (think knee length skirts, no low cut or sleeveless tops). Just as it is important to respect the natural environments you visit when camping or traveling, it is important to respect the cultural norms of an environment.
No matter how religious you are, what religion you observe, or if you do not at all, there is something for you to do in Jerusalem, and especially at Chanukah time. For now, I will leave you with that, but keep an eye out for a future article about family fun in Jerusalem. From one traveler to another, Happy Chanukah, Chanukah Sameach, A Freilichen Chanukah! Happy holidays to all!
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