Home for the Holidays

by Rabbi Ira Youdavin

My plane landed at  Ben Gurion Airport last Wednesday evening, four days before I would be joining the Jewish Council for Public Affairs National Leadership Mission, and 72 hours before the first night of Hanukkah.

The early arrival was different from my usual pattern. Normally, I speed from the airport to some meeting, with a quick meal, shower and sometimes a few hours of sleep squeezed in. On this trip, I wanted to spend some quality time with friends in Jerusalem and also in Tel Aviv, a city I visit only infrequently. That whirlwind would begin Sunday evening. But before it started, I wanted to enjoy even a little bit of the real Israel that lies partially hidden behind those hours of power point presentations.

Folks who come to Israel at this season expecting to find a blue-and-white Hanukkah-tide spin-off of the red–and-green extravaganza they left back in the States will be disappointed. Living as a majority in their own land, Israelis see Hanukkah in its proper historic perspective as a relatively minor holiday, instead of as a Diaspora counterpart to, and substitute for, Christmas.  Gift-giving excesses are assigned to Purim, which has a tradition of mishloach manot (gift giving). A few Hanukkah decorations hang in store windows. Hanukkah music plays on the sound system of shopping malls. And the Lubavitch, bless ‘em, have erected outsized Chanukiot all over town, making visitors feel like they’re still back in Kansas, Toto.

One local variation is that Israelis follow the Sephardic custom of eating suganiyot (jelly doughnuts) instead of latkes. As is known, latkes are virtually inedible if not ingested shortly after being taken from the bubbling oil. Trays of suganiyot are displayed everywhere in a rainbow of colors and a variety of fillings. Israel, when looking a lot like Hanukkah, looks like a giant Krispy Kreme outlet.

My conversations with friends did little to enhance the Hanukkah spirit. These focused on threats confronting Israel, both internal and external:  the Iranian bomb, the UN resolution recognizing Palestinian statehood, Israel’s controversial response, the Israeli elections, expanding Haredi power, etc. Two friends, who made aliyah nearly a half century ago as newlyweds from South Africa, told me that for the first time, they are truly worried about Israel’s future. One thinks of words from a familiar Chanukah song: “In every age/a hero or sage/Came to our aid.” Neither hero nor sage appears to be on the horizon.

On Saturday evening, pretty much bummed out from listening to prophesies of gloom, I headed out for dinner in a small, quiet restaurant off Jerusalem’s Zion Square. In the square, a crowd had gathered at the foot of a giant menorah for the ceremony of lighting the lights. As I approached them, I heard a familiar tune… and standing at rigid attention with tears welling in my eyes, I joined in: “Maoz tsur yeshuati…”

Suddenly it was Hanukkah. And as someone once said, “There’s no place like home for the holidays.”

Rabbi Ira Youdavin is executive vice president emeritus of the Chicago Board of Rabbis. Now retired, he chairs the Jewish Community Relations Council in Santa Barbara, Calif.  He was a longtime board member of ARZA and now serves on the Leadership Council.