Chanukah in Jerusalem

On the first night of Chanukah, I was in a coffee shop when the candles were lit; on the second night, I was in Ace hardware, awaiting the movers who would pick up my new bookcases and bring them to my home. I don’t know anywhere else in the world in which Chanukah candles are lit publicly at nightfall in coffee shops and hardware stores, but then again, there is no place in the world like Jerusalem.

I suppose I forgot, when I planned my week, that the custom in Jerusalem is to light candles immediately at nightfall. I forgot that everyone rushes home to light between the afternoon and evening service, “before the last feet have returned home from the market,” as the Talmud puts it. And so I was meeting my friend Daniel for our weekly date to read poetry together on Tuesday at 5pm in a coffee shop, when all of a sudden, a group of men burst through the door, placed a menorah on the counter next to the espresso machines, and began reciting the blessings over the candles. Everyone in the shop, from the freelance writers with their laptops to the awkward couples stammering through blind dates, looked up, and many sang along. I confess that I was mostly annoyed — we were in the middle of a Tennyson poem, and the rousing chorus of Maoz Tzur was ruining the rhythm!

When it was time to light candles on the second night, I was standing by the entrance of Ace hardware with a giant shopping cart filled with the wooden panels that will hopefully become my new bookcases. The movers were due to arrive at 5:30pm; I still had ten more minutes to kill. All of a sudden, a group of workers in their red overall uniforms passed by me with trays of jelly donuts. They grabbed one of the display picnic tables, spread some aluminum foil on it, and placed a menorah in the center, surrounded by the trays of donuts. A public service announcement blasted over the loudspeaker: “Attention customers! All are invited to light candles with Ace at the front of the store.” A group of workers and customers gathered around, and one of them began to recite the blessings. He clearly wasn’t religious, both because he had to put on a kippah and because he lit the candles in reverse order. Still, it was more of a “moving experience” than I had expected….

For the third night of Chanukah, I hope to go to Nachlaot, a neighborhood with narrow twisted alleyways in the northern part of the city where you can find at least one menorah outside the doorway to each home, and sometimes many more. They are all Jerusalem menorahs – that is, they consist of a glass box with a copper top, inside of which are eight shot glasses with oil and wicks. I have heard that the Jerusalem menorah originated with nineteenth century Christian pilgrims who would use these boxes to carry fire from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre back to their neighborhoods. I love watching the flames dance in the pool of oil, as if the candles are communicating with one another as they light up the night.

Many of my American friends are surprised that Chanukah is such a “big deal” in Jerusalem — they assume that Chanukah is given pride of place in America only because it is regarded as the Jewish Christmas. I find this comparison strange. Chanukah falls out close to Christmas, but also close to Thanksgiving, which seems like a far more fitting comparison. Chanukah might even be considered a Jewish Thanksgiving – a holiday on which we thank God for the miracle of keeping us alive as a people in spite of a difficult and scary period when we were not quite sure we’d survive. The words of the special prayer we recite, Al Ha-Nisim, emphasize this theme of thanksgiving: “And (we thank You) for the miracles, and for the salvation, and for the mighty deeds, and for the victories, and for the battles which You performed for our forefathers in those days, at this time…..” And so we celebrate Chanukah heartily and fully — with the fried donuts of all varieties (jelly, caramel, chocolate, etc.) that are sold at all the bakeries, and the singing of Hallel (psalms of praise) each morning, and of course, the lighting of the menorah in places I can only hope I will continue to discover as the subsequent nights of Chanukah unfold.

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