The original Star Wars movie opens with the words: A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…. For me and other Jews living outside of Israel, these words might fit our relationship with the events at the heart of the Chanukah story. As a kid growing up in Texas, the Hasmonean revolt against the anti-Jewish rules and oppressive actions of the Seleucid Greek rulers in the year 167 BCE seemed nearly as remote as those of the Jedi knights fighting Darth Vader.
This distance is enshrined on the dreidel, the spinning top used by children to play games at Chanukah: Neis Gadol Haya Sham – a great miracle happened there. When young, I identified with Judas the Maccabee as a fellow Jew, an ancestor who had fought against oppression, but it was something that happened a long time ago in a land far, far away.
I celebrated all eight days of Chanukah this year in Israel for the first time. The experience was different than any other Chanukah of the past.
Chanukah in Israel is unique because it is ubiquitous, part of the fabric of life. Menorahs were everywhere – in store fronts, at restaurants, on street corners, on light polls, and in advertisements. At nightfall, people could be found lighting their candles whether at home or work, eating the ever-present sufganiyot, the donuts filled with jelly or creams of all flavors.
But something deeper struck me. The dreidel in Israel is slightly different than that used everywhere else on Earth. The Israeli dreidel says: Neis Gadol Haya Po, a Great Miracle Happened HERE. The word “here” hit me. I was standing in the very land where the Chanukah story took place; it was local history that had taken place literally where I was standing.
It all came together on the final night. We lit candles together with my sister and her family, then my daughter and I ventured out to the Old City. Even though it was raining, lots of people were out and about. We entered the Old City through the New Gate that opens into the Christian Quarter to the cheerful lights and sounds of the annual Christmas Market. It was fun, festive and familiar to me, and reminded me of America. We then wound our way through the Arab shuk, where only a few stores remained open.
We knew we had reached the Jewish Quarter when we saw Chanukah lights in one doorway after the other, flickering quietly in the night. he mood was more serene, hushed, with families gathered in their apartments. We turned a corner and made it to a patio overlooking the Western Wall.
There, before us, was the Kotel, lit up with a grand, golden menorah in the center, all eight lights aglow. People were praying, some individually and some in groups, and many others were walking around the plaza, talking and taking pictures.
The Kotel is a spiritual magnet that pulls Jews, and many others, toward it. Viewing from the patio above the plaza allowed me to see the Temple Mount as well, the place where the Temple stood, the Temple that the Maccabees rededicated after ousting the Greeks. Here. It happened here. Right where we were standing.
Chanukah in Israel is not just a religious and cultural holiday; it is a national holiday. The story of the Hasmonean revolt against foreign rule speaks to the history of modern Israel. Like the Maccabees of old, modern Israelis fought off those who sought to destroy their national aspirations and religious freedoms.
Palestinian leaders and intellectuals have claimed that Jews do not have a history or claim to the land of Israel. Chanukah reminds us that this is simply false, a sharp reminder that Jews are not modern interlopers of someone else’s patrimony, but rather that Jews have lived here for thousands of years. It was here that Jews fought for their independence more than 2,000 years ago, long before the Arab conquest of the land some 700 years later. Palestinian Arabs have legitimate claims as well, and the Temple Mount is holy to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary, but we must not fall prey to the fabricated argument that Jews are foreign colonialists stealing the land of indigenous Palestinians.
The lights of the menorah, symbols of hope in darkness, remind us of the menorah first lit in our ancient Temples and of the quest of Jews for thousands of years to live as a free people in their land. The modern Israeli dreidel proclaims in each spin that the events commemorated by Chanukah took place in the land of Israel, by Jews seeking their freedom, then as today. In Israel, Chanukah is not the holiday of a land far away, or a time long ago; it is rather the holiday that retells our ancient and modern history in that very place.