To explain to my children what Chanukah was like for me as a young girl, I find I am just as inclined to recount what it wasn’t as I am to describe what it was. Growing up in northern New Jersey in the Cohen household, driving through the wealthier neighborhoods (those which my parents reminded me still blocked the sale of homes to Jews through the 1960s) to see the elaborate Christmas displays through our car windows was always part of the winter season. My brothers and I watched Charlie Brown’s Christmas and The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. In school we had “holiday” parties where we ate gingerbread cookies off of red and green plates, sucked on candy canes and sang Jingle Bells.
My family set aside a day to go into New York City to line up with the crowds to see the lavish store window displays. I would peer into the glass in the same way I watched neighborhood carolers through my bedroom window wondering what this had to do with religion, why I felt so alienated and where our big show was.
Even my Hindu neighbors, new immigrants from Bombay had a Christmas tree. When I asked them why, reminding them that they were in fact most definitely not Christian, they responded, “But we are real Americans now. Our school celebrates, our town celebrates, the President celebrates. Everyone in America celebrates Christmas.”
“Well, almost everyone,” I thought.
Chanukah, on the other hand, was for us a very private affair. Our electric menorah was carefully placed in our window, small and discreet like the others on the block – in contrast to the houses loudly decorated in Christmas tinsel, lights and splendor. Public menorah lightings in my town were fraught with a conflict between the separation of church and state. Our menorah while symbolically a “light unto the nations” emitted little more light than our burglar alarm.
Now, decades later and living in Hong Kong, I find myself with my own children in tow, on Chanukah, making our way past Chinese herb shops, dried fish hawkers, neon signs and skyscrapers. It is a relatively balmy evening and crowds of Chinese still team from their offices despite the late hour, spilling into the street and congregating outside noodle shops.
Hong Kong’s Stature Square is blocked off by police barricades to control the crowds and a large group has already assembled. A stage has been set, flood lighting is in place and high tech-sound and video equipment has been arranged. Local passers-by linger, hoping perhaps for the latest Canto-pop star to arrive.
As we approach, I see a friend, a fellow writer, and wave to her. I am surprised to see her here. In the 7 years that I have known her, she has never been to synagogue, never lit Shabbat candles, never kept Pesach, really never openly identified herself as Jewish, yet here she is and in seconds she is in the mix of the crowd swaying to the music.
My children run off to find their friends. I pause to take in the festive scene as a young Chabadnik, donning a furry bright blue dreidel costume, spins by me passing out chocolate gelt.
‘Why are you here?” I shout to my friend over the crowd.
“Are you kidding me?” she responds, “This is great. I never miss this. This is as good as it gets.”
I am puzzled and try to understand her sentiment. We are at the Chabad menorah lighting. What about this event has the power to connect the Jewish community, the secular, the Sephardi, the Modern Orthodox, the liberal? And especially for those that tend to keep their Judaism under wraps, there is nothing subtle about this affair.
The sounds of familiar Jewish tunes fill the night air. Some years, a parade of cars topped with giant lit menorahs and blaring speakers approach.
This annual celebration is very big. It is perhaps the largest annual gathering of Jews in Hong Kong, attracting up to 600 participants. Approximately 1000 sufganiyot or latkes are passed out during the festival.
The crowd is joyous. While the video presentation is notable, nothing can compete with the main event, the public lighting. Rabbi Avtzon, head of Chabad of Hong Kong, takes center stage and together everyone chants the blessings. A menorah is lit and the smell of fire and burning wick fills the air, together with an overwhelming sense of pride. I gaze up at the 15-foot tall menorah framed by the iconic Hong Kong skyline and marvel at the contrast between cultures.
A sufganiyah is thrust into my hand. I look up at the dark sky illuminated now not only by skyscrapers but by the flames of the oversized menorah. Even in this frenetic skyline, we have managed to add light. I take a bite as I attempt to reflect amidst the ensuing madness – I am no longer looking through a window wondering where our big celebration is.