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Chanukah in the Kibbutz


To end the year and the decade on a positive note, here are my recollections of how beautiful, how meaningful, how special celebrating Chanukah was in the kibbutz when I was growing up. As a ten-year-old kid, let’s say, we classmates we’ll be very excited all day ahead of lighting the first candle of the menorah. We’ll get ready for it in our class, which—you may or may not know—was at the common house where we all lived together. We did not live with our parents, but in our house where we studied, played, ate, and slept. On that day we would decorate the classroom with our holiday ‘artworks,’ and of course will study the story of the Maccabees, their heroic revolt against the Syrian-Greco army, the capture of Jerusalem and the rededication of the Second Temple, and the miracle of the oil that lit the menorah for eight straight days.

Later that afternoon all the kibbutz schoolkids will get together in one large hall, where we will sing all the Chanukah songs, light menorahs with the first candle, play games and eat latkes. The big deal would be that we actually would cook the latkes ourselves. Following that, we will walk to our parents’ home, which was called a ‘room,’ where we again would light the menorah, turn off the lights and sing the songs. We will wait anxiously, because along the main dirt-road of the kibbutz a tractor will pass with a cart, and volunteers will deliver carefully counted sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts) to each home. We’ll devour them, as they were a real ‘expensive’ treat. We’ll then play the dreidel some, and leave our homes to a main gathering place. From there we will walk with flaming torches leading the way to the big swimming pool on the slope of the mountain. It was Mount Gilboa, the Biblical Mount where Saul and his sons fought the Philistines and where they died.

In later years, the flaming torch procession would include especially made water lanterns kids and adults created, with bright colors cellophane paper surrounding a lit candle. Upon arriving at the swimming pool these torches would be placed in the water, and float there majestically during the ceremony. There will be a choir singing, and readings about the glory of the Maccabees. Coincidingly, signs and a large menorah would be lit up on the mountain. I was lucky once to be on the mountain, in the dark and cold, waiting anxiously to put fire to one of these signs. Oh boy, it was the most beautiful sight: the fire and light, up on the dark mountain.

Following this ceremony we will go down to the bottom of the kibbutz, where the main asphalt road passed. By that time, eight o’clock already, there will be a torch race competition, involving runners from other kibbutzim and from different age groups. It will start somewhere far from the kibbutz, and runners will race along the road carrying a lit, fiery torch. The whole kibbutz will wait anxiously to see who will arrive first, carrying the torch. Obviously, if he would arrive and the torch is not lit, then it’s not a win. But again, it was a glorious sight waiting for runners to appear carrying the torches, as I myself did once or twice.

We will then go up to the outside basketball court, where the people of the kibbutz would gather with their kids. There will be all kinds of games and races involving the adults and kids. Looking back now, I believe our parents brought those type of games from Europe. We will jump inside empty potato sacks, for instance; men would carry children on their shoulders and will race from one end of the court to the other. Games like that, involving food too, were fun galore.

At this point there will be an announcement, probably some singing, to close the first day of Chanukah. Schoolkids will disperse to their houses, with or without their parents, depend on age. The parents might go home, or might go down to the common dining room for an adult only party. We kids could hardly sleep, of course, following all the fun we had in this long day of celebration, and the good food we ate.

The next day, whether it would be a regular school day or a holiday vacation, we kids will have the greatest pleasure of all. As I said in the beginning, I was a ten-year-old kid. And so, together with my friends we’ll go down to a bomb-shelter, located not far from our building. By that time we were already able to snatch away quite a number of Chanukah candles, and some matches too. We will light the candles and will collect the colorful burning wax in the palm of our hands. It was a test of bravery, of resisting pain. The trick was to see who could be the toughest of us boys, and be able to collect the most candlewax in hand and knead it into the biggest, most colorful ball of wax. We will hang on to these wax balls, for games and decoration, long after the holiday was already over.

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If Not Now, When?

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“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?” So said the 1st century Jewish sage ‘Hillel the Elder’, or ‘Hillel the Wiser’ (as I prefer to call him), whom most—if not all—of you I’m sure are familiar with. Same goes with the above aphorism, his most well-known saying. It serves also, by name and by idea, the ‘IfNotNow’ movement, “founded in July 2014 to protest American Jewish institutional support for Israel’s actions during the 2014 Israeli-Gaza conflict (according to Wikipedia). Their first action was to recite the Jewish prayer of mourning, the Mourner’s Kaddish, for all Palestinian and Israeli victims of the war outside the offices of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.”

But before I move on to the reason I’m writing about it now, a confession: In the summer of 2002 I led a group of Jewish students from UC Davis and Sacramento State on a ‘Birthright’ trip to Israel. That experience was especially dear to me, visiting the old country with young people who have never visited the ‘land of milk and honey’ before. And while we stopped almost daily at various places, to sit in a circle and discuss the significance of our visit in those places—including historical facts and political implications, not shying away from some hard questions—we did not visit the occupied territories, other than the Golan Heights.

Admittingly, times in 2002 were very different. The trip—an act of not insignificant courage on the part of the students and their parents—began short of two weeks after the vicious terrorist attack in the Tel Aviv’s Dolphinarium where 21 Israelis, 16 of them teenagers, were murdered. Jerusalem was terrorized by random, if frequent terrorist attacks on buses and in street cafes. Security during the trip was a prime concern, and the possibility of visiting the West Bank was not even remotely on the agenda. The decision to stop in the Kiryat Moshe neighborhood (if I remember correctly), and allow the students to stroll around, visit shops and cafes for an hour or two, was a major headache. Visiting Hebron, Ramallah, or even some close by settlements was impossible.

Now, you may ask, why am I bringing it up? Here’s why: I first learned of the ‘IfNotNow’ movement when it was associated—even blamed for—in the Israeli media for a trickle of Jewish students who, while visiting Israel as part of the ‘Birthright’ trip, decided that they wanted to see for themselves—how audacious of them, really?—the occupied territories of the West Bank, and learn firsthand what life there is all about for the Palestinian population, what the occupation does to them, the Israeli Army rule and role, the checkpoints (see the picture above) effect on everyday life. In short, they wanted to know, and sort out the truth for themselves, not eat without questions what was spoon-fed to them by the trip’s organizers and counselors.

A storm irrupted, of course. The rebellious students were ostracized by the trip’s tour guides, and those in charge did not allow then to continue with the scheduled trip, and I believe they had to pay their way back home to America by themselves. Still, the movement grew, as more and more conscientious young people continued to demand to know the truth: What really the Jewish state is doing, inflicting such pain on the Palestinian People? And to what end? It was also, immediately associated with the IfNotNow movement as the catalyst to this new phenomenon. Blaming that movement for starting this mini-rebellious in the first place.

Now whether this is true I don’t know, and “frankly, I don’t give a damn.” The crux of the matter, and with it the battle for the hearts and minds of young Jews, is what matters most. Which brings me to a story in Haaretz that I recently shared on Facebook, where a young woman demonstrating on behalf of ‘IfNotNow’ wore a shirt imprinted with this slogan: “The Jewish people future demands Palestinian freedom.” How refreshing, how appropriate: Hitting the occupation’s nail right on its head. This is something I believed in for a long time, and referred to not once on this blog. I therefore applaud all these young Jewish students and not students, urging them to keep demonstrating all around the country with this slogan carried upfront (again, see above picture).

However, it is important to point out that the Palestinian people deserves justice—historically and currently—no matter what, and not only because by granting them this justice the future of the Jewish people will also be secured. More so: The Zionist dream and endeavor of establishing Israel as the secured home for the Jewish people, cannot be fully achieved without granting similar rights to the Palestinian people. This simple equation, which I’ve tried to explain many times to American Jews since immigrating—with considerable resistance and abuse from their side—still exists today at the core of this historic conflict.

What Hillel, the most famous of Jewish sages knew so well more than 2000 years ago was that one, you—as a person and as a people—have to STRIVE to achieve justice for yourself. But that second, if this justice is JUST for yourself—again, as a person and as a people—then what is the justification for it, really? And third that the TASK of achieving this justice—for you and for the other—cannot wait. It must be work for now. Without delay!

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