A Different Chanukah Party
Chanukah is a holiday in the US which tends to compete with Christmas: it comes in December, involves family feasting, parties and the giving of presents. It tends to be a holiday which is deeply loved by Jewish children in the States who like to boast that it's "better than Christmas because it lasts eight days, not one!" Nothing like comparative pot-latching to underscore theological oneupsmanship.
I've always liked Chanukah but both my husband and I enjoyed it mostly for the children's sake. We eat latkes (which Mike loathes) and sufganiyot (jelly donuts, which are always better when Yona makes them than when we buy them). After lighting the chanukiot, the youngest child has to tell the rest of us "the meaning of Chanukah" before we initiate the present-hunt. This guarantees that the youngest child really learns the lesson of Chanukah because when he falters in his recitation, his older sisters urge him on with the details they remember so we can get on to the REALLY important stuff-- presents! As each child has gotten older, the details of the meaning of Chanukah have become more profound and passed on to the younger siblings in turn. (Sidebar: as a result, Josh was the one child in his Torah study class this week who wow'd the rabbi because he could give a fairly detailed account of the meaning of Chanukah. We let him bask in the rabbi's praise rather than deflate his accomplishment by pointing out that the competition with Christmas for presents was at the root of all this knowledge...)
After the recitation, the lights are doused so only the lights of the chanukiot are glowing, and the hunt begins. Each night, the kids search the house for hidden presents. The older ones are wise to the fact that the present lying practically in plain view is for the vision-impaired youngest,and they skirt that and search for their own, better-hidden presents. Once everyone has unearthed their presents, the lights are turned back on and the presents finally get opened!
The class demographic of my non-intensive ulpan is quite different from the summer intensive ulpan I attended. In the summer, the average age was probably about 25. In our class, the average age is probably twice that.
Most of us have other extended family here. Many have come to Israel to join their adult children and grandchildren. The French, for the most part, do not fall into this category as they have uprooted themselves and come en famille to escape the rising tide of anti-Semitism in France. Likewise, the Ethiopians have fled the long-lasting hatred of Ethiopian neighbors some time ago, but some are still arriving in Israel and attending ulpan.
Today we gathered for an ulpan-wide Chanukah party. There were no presents, no loud partying, no decorations, no recitations. However, it was an oddly moving moment when these mostly middle-aged-to-old people stood, one by one, lit a candle and announced "Happy Chanukah" to the class, and said who they were and where each hailed from. Students of all ages have moved here with new hope, with new dreams, from all walks of life, and from more countries than I had imagined. New immigrants came from France and the US and South Africa, of course; others came from Japan, Ethiopia, Argentina, Cuba, Malaysia, the Ukraine, Moldavia, Germany, Norway, Switzerland, Spain, Australia, and Venezuela. Some were shy; some were openly glad to be here. Several thanked G-d aloud for the opportunity to live in Israel. Some were young; most were middle-aged or a bit older; some were octogenarians. The latter made me feel that it is never too late to make aliyah and make your life anew.
We ate sufganiyot, joked, wished each other well, and sang our Chanukah songs from the heart because the songs we had sung in years past, translated into French or English, we now sang in the original Hebrew. We closed with Am Yisroel Chai (the People of Israel Live!), a song appropriate for Chanukah and other times to remember that we are Jews, we are alive, we are here, and we have survived and are determined to continue to live and build and love and laugh, even in the face of the world's oldest hate and the promises of annihilation.