By Sarah Bendetsky:
I sit on a warm carpet in our living room, enchanted by the lights of multi-coloured Chanukah candles.
Packed in a light-blue box, these candles arrived in a humanitarian aid parcel from Israel, together with a tin candleholder, a blue spinning top dreydel and a small string-bag of chocolate coins — the most delicious treat in the entire world.
My world is big and it’s about our apartment and suburb, and the whole city of Moscow. And it also includes the faraway country of Israel, where people speak Hebrew — the language I don’t know yet but will definitely learn one day… the country featuring a blue star on its flag – the same star as the one I wear on my necklace… the country where multi-coloured candles live in light-blue boxes and get to travel to other places to spread its light.
I am seven or eight years old. I am an ordinary girl with blond hair and unordinary last name. And I have a big secret too.
We are getting ready for the New Year at school. There is a huge Christmas tree in the auditorium, decorated with balls and garlands. During the day we practice for the end-of-year concert where I play a ‘snowflake’ – just like all other Russian girls. But I can’t wait for the nighttime when a different holiday will enter my life – the one I don’t talk about in school. It’s my Chanukah…
Time goes by and I change schools. Now the auditorium features a big menorah. Our teachers say that another menorah is going to be lit on the Red Square in the centre of Moscow. Would you ever believe that? Now that’s a Chanukah miracle…
During the festive week our classes are shortened; we enjoy school concerts, donuts and latkes, and – guess what? – Each student receives a genuine American dollar for Chanukah gelt!
Coats are abandoned in the cloak-room; and we run to the currency exchange booth nearby the school, laughing away… The snow is crispy; our cheeks are red… Ah… the joy Chanukah.
Time travels fast, and here I am celebrating my first Chanukah it the United States. I am 16 and I’ve been here for exactly 1 month and 10 days. Apparently, it’s quite common to erect electric menorahs on car roofs. I stop each time I see one, realising that’s it’s possible to reveal my yiddishkeyt.
I rush into Judaica store and buy my first chanukiya, which resembles Kotel – the Western Wall. I hold it tight and run back home to make it for the lighting.
A flash of memory… and I am a seminary student on my gap year in Montreal. These days my nineteen-year-old friends and I are in charge of Chanukah activities. It is a big responsibility to bring the holiday spirit to life, knowing how many children are looking forward to our Chanukah concert. So I try really hard to draw decorations and choose the right music, while my friends are practicing the play, setting up the game stations and are busy selecting the raffle prizes … And very soon another Chanukah miracle takes place — our young audience is mesmerised by what they see on stage.
A somersault of time, and here I am, frying latkes in my tiny kitchen in Crown Heights, New York. They don’t look great — which isn’t surprising — I never wore an apron before my wedding. I am upset that halfof the latkes looks Cajun, while the other half is too pale… But that’s not the end of the world since the ‘first-Chanukah’ smell comes out of every apartment in our building where so many newlyweds start their life together.
The year after my husband Avi was going to light chanukiya while holding our newborn son on his lap. And my latkes were golden and perfectly round (well, ‘the round’ part I made up. I doubt that I’ll ever get it a right, but what a metaphor it was!)
Time leaps and new discoveries enter my life: Australian Chanukah happens in summer! No more ice frosting on my windows, but a wonderful concert in the Caulfield Park instead – with magical fireworks, reaching higher than palm trees and eucalyptuses… And here is my daughter, twirling around like a dreydel herself…
One year I get an opportunity to celebrate Chanukah in Israel. Having to fly in the middle of the holiday, I worry that I won’t be able to light candles in Thailand where I switch my flight from Melbourne. I ask the airport staff member to allow me to light these tiiiiiny candles in a tin candleholder (yes, they are in the light-blue box identical to the ones I had in my childhood. To my surprise, I found these at Coles the day before my flight.)
I calmly explain to the staff member that Chanukah is a Jewish holiday, which celebrates the miracle of oil and the victory of one’s faith over circumstances — in memory of which we light candles for 8 days. Yes, no matter where we end up in the world… And so it is that this Chanukah I am in Bangkok, so maybe you will let me?.. Please?.. No, madam, it is not my birthday today. So why do these candles look like birthday cake candles?.. Well, haven’t I just explained to you the whole story?..
…Feeling upset and misunderstood, I make my way to the El Al counter which finally opens up for check-in. Suddenly, I realise that Chanukah isn’t a purely religious holiday in Israel but a national one too, uniting people from all walks of life. Passengers are offered sufganiyot and I get a warm feeling that I am going home.
Travelling back from the airport I can’t stop looking at the sparkling illuminations on the roads of Jerusalem. These are golden menorahs, as oppose to Christmas trees and garlands, decorating the other cities where I lived before at this time of the year.
All I have is six days. I try to see and feel as much as possible, but, most importantly, to understand what is it like to live on your own land and not to be a minority?
Meanwhile, the country enjoys its break from work and school, and Israelis of all ages are seen in shopping centres, playgrounds and bakeries, where piles of donuts in all shapes and colours are waiting for their turns. And let me tell you, choosing just one is next to impossible…
I walk on the streets of Jerusalem by night and peek into the windows of this ancient, wise, hospitable city.
I see little children in almost every window. They are enchanted by the playful lights of Chanukah candles, and somehow I know that I saw them already… The lights wink inviting to come closer…
“Happy Chanukah!” I hear on Machane Yehuda market, on a bus stop and just about everywhere else… I am not used to hearing greetings from complete strangers and I smile back, frantically trying to recognise these people, totally revealing that I am a visitor from overseas.
“Happy Chanukah to you, too!” I answer back. “And may you be blessed with abundance of miracles, no matter where you end up celebrating this wonderful holiday!”