We light these candles on account of the miracles and the wonders, the victories and the redemption that You performed for our ancestors in those days at this season.
-Hanukkah candle-lighting ceremony
The Shabbat preceding the first candle of Hanukkah was rainy, and by the end we were a bit stir-crazy, so after the candles burned down we decided to go out for dinner. We chose a large dairy restaurant in Karmiel, popular with families, known for its fancy desserts. The restaurant does not have a “kosher” certificate, so one does not encounter Orthodox diners there. The restaurant – and the mall – were packed as is typical on a Saturday night, perhaps even more so as next day was the start of a school vacation for Jewish schools.
While waiting for our order, we heard singing, and soon the whole restaurant was focused on a group of teenagers who were lighting a menorah on the front counter. The Arab families looked on with bemused smiles; most of the Jewish patrons sang along, though no one was alert enough to correct the kids when they sang the blessings in the wrong order. On the one hand there was nothing particularly remarkable about this scene; after all, the Jewish holidays are very evident in the public space in Israel. On Hanukkah there are menorahs in windows and in cases outside of people’s doors, large electric menorahs on buildings, and sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts) in stacks of trays in front of every bakery and grocery store already weeks ahead of the holiday. And yet, at the same time, this improvised ceremony made everyone smile – and it seems a lot of people found the whole scene something to write home about, as they were filming it on their smartphones. Indeed, it created some awkwardness, in going beyond the usual, taken-for-granted presence of a lit menorah in a public place, because suddenly we all found ourselves, willy-nilly, part of a religious ceremony. Which meant that when I looked around, I saw that all the Jewish men in the restaurant had napkins on their heads. It was a pretty funny sight; to an outsider, it surely would have looked bizarre. Non-observant Israelis have an obsession about covering their heads during any kind of religious ceremony; if they can’t find a napkin or handkerchief, you can see them with their hand clasped to the top their head. There are many Israelis who would think nothing of eating a Reuben sandwich on Yom Kippur which falls on Shabbat, but wouldn’t dream of transgressing two “mitzvot:” 1) covering their head when a blessing or prayer is recited in their presence – and 2) making sure that that recitation is not done by a woman.
The ongoing development of Israeli culture and its ambivalent relationship to the Jewish tradition is fascinating and sometimes frustrating. From the earliest days of the Zionist return to Israel, there have been several interwoven strands:
- A redefinition of Judaism as pure secular nationality – a rebellion against all religious practice and belief.
- The affirmation of the halachic tradition as an essential pillar of Israeli culture and identity.
- The mainstream position: the secularization of the tradition, meaning that we keep the traditions, but as culture, not as religious commandment – and thus prayer is, for the most part, not included. That’s why Hanukkah gets a lot more play than Rosh Hashanah.
At times it seems that this approach has been successful, as seen in the revival of the Hebrew language as a vernacular, and the definition of the rhythm of public and private life according to the Jewish calendar. But at other times one wonders if this separation of tradition from religion – and hence from a grounding in a sense of commandedness, from a set of moral values – is sustainable. In another hundred years, maybe we’ll have forgotten the blessings entirely, but we’ll still have the inexplicable custom of putting napkins on our heads.