We arrived in Israel a bit after the High Holidays (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), so Hanukah is the first Jewish holiday have celebrated here. We grew up being told by our elders that Hanukah was a minor holiday, but we never believed it. But it actually isn't a major holiday here. In America, with all of the hoopla for Christmas, Hanukah really is important to Jews as an alternative. In Israel, Hanukah is a big deal only because it is the winter school break. Even though schools are out, almost everyone is still at work. Many of the kids in Emma's school are at a "camp" that is held in the school during regular school hours that permits the parents to keep on working through the break. A few families we know are taking a break, off to Eilat to get a little extra sunshine in southern Israel, or off to Paris, London, or Thailand.
A true indication of the holiday's relative unimportance is the relative lack of Hanukah merchandise in stores. We have been told Rosh Hashanah and Passover are the major consumer holidays. Now the supermarket has a few small shelves of candy-filled dreydl's and colorful candles, but that is it. The bank had a hanukiah (what we usually in America erroneously call a menorah), the malls have a few decorations; but compared to Christmas in the U.S., there's no sense of Hanukah permeating the atmosphere.
Every year we have tried to escape Christmas in America: we've gone to hippie hot tub communities only to be met by carolers on the beach, we've gone to remote locations in Hawaii to find ornament-bedecked palm trees, and even in Japan we endured a lot more Christmas spirit than we had expected. Only in Israel, have we really seen no sign of Christmas. We heard there are Christmas decorations in the Christian Arab quarter in Hadar in Haifa, and the mall in Jaffa, we are told, has decorated trees and piped in carols. But we've seen basically nothing.
Of course, Hanukah appeals to children everywhere. Emma's class practiced Hanukah songs for the three weeks before the holiday, preparing a Hanukah show for the families. Emma brought home a dreydl (here it's called a tzivivon) and a hanukiah she made at school. The show at school was quite impressive. The kids sang at least 10 songs, carefully choreographed with little dances, candle-lighting, and an especially rousing version of the "Bridge over the River Kwai" complete with four instrumental groups. (We aren't quite sure how that song worked itself into the Hanukah repertoire, but it was cute.) All the kids wore blue and white, the Israeli national colors. The parents were encouraged to sing along with a number of songs, including the traditional (and historically militaristic) "Ma'os Tsur", known in English as "Rock of Ages." Afterwards, everyone was encouraged to eat the most traditional Hanukah food in Israel, sufganiyot: jelly-filled doughnuts. Buying sufganiyot for the 75-100 people was beyond the school's budget, so it was a case of B.Y.O.S. In America, the traditional Hanukah food is potato pancakes (latkes). And let us say that this is a tradition that the Israelis should take from the American Jews.
There are also a few parties during Hanukah, mostly to share candle-lighting. We went to one on Friday night, the Sabbath, where the dinner was oil fondue; this is appropriate for Hanukah because burning oil is the historical basis for the holiday. There were several children at the party, but there was no exchange of gifts. It's even clearer now that exchanging gifts at Hanukah in America is simply due to the pressure from Christmas. We were also surprised to find friends here who had never played dreydl, which we have always viewed as an integral part of the holiday. (We've actually found a number of minor differences in what we think of as basic Jewish "stuff". We've already told you about the lack of good bagels. But we were pretty taken aback to find out that we couldn't even pronounce "mazel tov" properly. We've always said mazel, as in nozzle. In Israel, and we guess they know what they're saying, they say, "mazel" rhyming with "That's all" - well, sort of.)
Emma's school party reminded us of something we knew but tend to forget: that every kid in the school is Jewish. Basically, everyone we know in Israel is Jewish. Of course, it is the Jewish state, so this is what you would expect. But after having been in the Jewish minority in America for our whole lives, it's hard to convey how different a feeling it is where our traditional culture is the norm. It's not unusual for the guy writing parking tickets to be wearing a kippah (skullcap); it wasn't surprising to see an electronic posting at IBM asking if anyone could lend a kippah to someone who was headed to a funeral. It's not unusual for supermarket clerks to wish us, "Shabbat Shalom" when we shop on Friday mornings. The six-pointed Star of David is ubiquitous: on ambulances, in food stores, and even (we kid you not) the little camphor in the urinals at David's work are Jewish stars. Mezzuzahs (traditional prayer holders on doorposts) are everywhere, too: at the car rental place, on every door at IBM (in standard big blue and white), in our rented house, and of course at the kindergarten. The Costco equivalent (Universe Club) has kiddush cups and yarzheit (memorial) candles in bulk. Still, none of this even comes close to conveying the feeling of being a Jew in a Jewish state.
In America, religion has been (rightfully, in our opinion) pushed out of the public sector. But here it's part of it. What happens to the non-Jews? Well, public life is separated, beginning with the schools. The state funds, and children are tracked into, three school systems based on their religion: religious (for orthodox Jews), secular (this is where Emma is), and Arabic. (We are told the orthodox schools receive the most largesse because the orthodox political party is politically very powerful.) Even in the secular Jewish schools, though, the students are required to study a significant amount about the Torah and Jewish history. And in addition to Hanukah productions and other holiday activities, children also light Sabbath candles in Emma's class every Friday. So, even secular Jews have ingrained Jewish customs and traditions. Indeed, some of our secular friends say that this is exactly why they aren't orthodox: "We're Jewish and everybody around us is Jewish, so why do I have to go to temple to be Jewish?"
Even the most secular Jews we have met in Israel strongly define themselves as Jews. (The colloquial Hebrew language replaces the word "you" or "person" with a generic "Jew", as in greeting a friend by asking, "How are you as a Jew?" or inquiring whether or not "this Jew has a car.") We have often talked to Jews who came to Israel because they faced discrimination in their original country. This discrimination can be as innocuous as being fired from Dunkin' Donuts for being Jewish in the midwest of the U.S. to having relatives killed by the Nazis in Poland. (One of our friends recounted how in his home town in Poland, the town doctor pointed out the Jews and then the Nazis took them into the synagogue and burned it.) Israel is the Jewish homeland, the safe haven in a cultural, spiritual, and religious sense. In Israel, being Jewish is part of the air we breathe. It is the reason we chose to come here for sabbatical.
As in America, some of the people we've met here join a synagogue congregation in order to go through the process of giving their children a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. And we are told most Jews observe Yom Kippur by going to a synagogue. But the people we know in Israel are mainly secular Jews. Still, their Jewish practice is wide-ranging. Some people we know wear a kippah all of the time, some don't answer the phone on Shabbat (any work, even turning on a light, violates the orthodox spirit of complete sabbath rest), and some just light candles on Friday night. Our own Jewish practice has evolved in the past two months in Israel to a very secular practice. One Friday night we went to a conservative synagogue (most synagogues in Israel are orthodox but we didn't want to go to one because men and women have to sit in separate areas). The service was all in Hebrew but the siddur (prayer books) were available in Hebrew, Russian, and English. Of course we recognized the prayers (prayers are still the only Hebrew we really feel familiar with). The congregation was mostly elderly, but they singled out Emma to lead the blessing over the wine.
We have gone to a few Friday night dinners at friend's houses, but we are particularly enamoured of the Israeli custom of relaxing on Saturday. On many Saturday afternoons we have been invited to Shabbat lunches. These lunches are the main meal of the week, a time to get out cookbooks and make elaborate salads and fish dishes. Our friends use their good china, serve excellent wine, and offer us large, leisurely meals that start at about 2 P.M. and stretch into the early evening.
The other sabbath practice we enjoy in Haifa, one we will not be easily able to transport home to Seattle, is closing the week at the beach. We, along with hordes of others, finish our shopping on Friday morning. Then we pick up Emma at her kindergarten and drive down to the ocean. There is a boardwalk with many restaurants where we can order coffee, a beer, fresh orange juice, some pita bread and olives, and sit outside in the sun, watching the parade of people. Emma plays on a playground beside the ocean while the sun dips lower. As the sun sets into the ocean in brilliantly colored sunsets, we wish each other "Shabbat Shalom", close the old week and welcome the new in the most spiritual way we have ever experienced.