Hanukkah was always kind of a letdown when I was a kid growing up in New England. Sure, we had the eight days of presents that caused my non-Jewish friends no shortage of jealousy, but I was more envious of them for having the market on the tinsel, outdoor home displays, and all the bells, lights, and glitter that Christmas brought with it.
Christmas was very public, while Hanukkah seemed like our secret ethnic tradition that involved strange elements like dreidels and using excessive amounts of oil to fry latkes and eat them with sour cream or applesauce. One of my warm and fuzzy memories was walking past the window of someone’s home and seeing the Hanukkah lights glowing against the glass. That’s because there weren’t that many of them.
That’s unlike Israel, where practically every house sports a hanukkiyah (menorah). They even light them in supermarkets and place huge ones on tops of public buildings. And oil? Between the ubiquitous sufganiyot (doughnuts), levivot (latkes), and the everyday falafel, it seems like the country is fueled solely by greasy food.
You can’t avoid knowing when it’s Hanukkah in Israel, from the schools to the workplace to the commercials on TV and radio. There may not be much Christmas caroling (but there is if you know where to look for it), but you’ll learn every word of “Maoz Tzur” by heart by the time your first child leaves day care.
What’s better, to be part of a small minority invoking the traditions of your people, or be the majority where everyone is doing it? Solving that riddle is a good part of why I’ve been celebrating Hanukkah in Israel for the last 32 years instead of in New England.
Those of us who have chosen Israel over the place we grew up have, in many instances, left behind saddened parents and family and a strong sense of being American for a chance to be part of the grand rebirth of the Jewish homeland. An Israel – with the oft-quoted promise by David Ben-Gurion that when it “has prostitutes and thieves, we’ll be a state just like any other.”
Well, we’ve fulfilled his prophecy, but what has happened to Jewish identity along the way? For me, living in a country with a Jewish majority has become, dare I say it, ordinary. Gone are the days when I would marvel at crowds on the street or passengers on a bus and think “This is amazing, they’re all Jewish!”
Now more often than not, instead of being colorful and vibrant Jews, they’re pushy and noisy Israelis. I don’t really care that the driver who just cut me off or the surly cashier is one of the Tribe – they’re just annoying people who would be irritating whether they were Irish or Scandinavian.
The lustrous Superman Teflon that used to get them a free pass because they’re Jewish in a Jewish state has become torn and frayed, as the high-octane emotions and daily grind of life in Israel has turned the can’t-do-wrong Sabras into very human and flawed people.
Then, something like Hanukkah comes around – and just like that, you get dragged back in to what attracted you in the first place. The songs are seeping out of every store, the bakeries are bursting with jelly doughnuts like the regular on steroids, workplaces take time out to light the hanukkiyah, and again you feel like you’re part of a people.
That’s all great for those of us that chose to live here, but, unless you’re religiously observant, how can you instill a sense of Jewish identity in your kids? Especially when all of the elements that would be at your disposal in a Diaspora environment are – in Israel – symbols of national identity?
It’s not easy, as we have discovered with our four children – ages 28 to 16. All of them were born and raised in Israel speaking Hebrew and going through the school system and, for three of them, the army. They’re all proudly Israelis. But Jewishly oriented? As Larry David might say, “Not so much.”
For them, the yearly cycle of Jewish holidays is the regular calendar, not a parallel one that exists alongside the secular calendar. Public transportation shutting down for Shabbat and kashrut in the Israel Defense Forces are just natural extensions of their national identity. Jewish? Israeli? For many Israelis, it sort of merges into one.
We know we live in trepidation, that as adults building their own lives, one of them may decide that being Israeli isn’t enough of a reason to remain in Israel.
Will I shed a tear if one of my kids turns the tables on me and, like I did with my parents, move across the world away from the life I envisioned for them? Of course. But I’ll at least find some solace in knowing that when Hanukkah comes around, they’ll know all the words to “Maoz Tzur.”
David Brinn grew up in Maine, and is a Jerusalem-based journalist.