As a kid, I always loved Chanukah. Eight days of parties with family, chocolate coins, games of dreidel, presents, and actually being allowed to light fires? What could be better?
Quite simply: celebrating Chanukah in Israel.
While the rest of the world may start celebrating Chanukah on chaf hey Kislev, here in Israel the celebration begins all the way back on Rosh Chodesh Kislev. From the beginning of the month, bakeries around the country start stocking the most delicious arrays of sufganiyot.
Forget about your heimishe jelly donuts (although those are available here too); the donuts here come in every imaginable flavor – nutella, pudding, halva, cookie butter… For Shabbos kiddush each week this month, my family sampled different donuts from local bakeries to find the perfect choices for the actual chag. (My daughter’s favorite was a pink donut topped with an ice cream cone to make it look like a unicorn, while my son preferred an Oreo cookies and cream combination.)
And I know we weren’t the only ones who started celebrating early here. In anticipation of the chag, our Modi’in moms Facebook group started a “Secret Maccabee” program. All participants in the program were paired with another mom to secretly share gifts leading up to and through the chag. An excuse to buy more presents and make some new friends? Count us in!
One of the first gifts we secretly delivered was a menorah-shaped box filled with Chanukah candies. While I certainly love chocolate gelt (and bought some of those too), we packed the box with sufganiya-flavored lollipops, dreidel-shaped candies, and kinder chocolates bars shaped like menorah candles. (It’s so much fun shopping in candy stores where everything is kosher!)
Turns out, many of the other moms were a lot more creative than I was. One mom gifted a homemade cookie dough kit complete with all the accoutrements for kids to transform the dough into Chanukah-shaped cookies. Another mom put together a “Make Your Own Pasta Set,” complete with an oregano plant.
Every gift came with a personalized note, letting the recipient know that her Secret Maccabee was thinking of her. The program has been a wonderful way to bond, even though we still can’t meet in person. I have received the most thoughtful gifts (including homemade coconut chutney and the most deliciously cozy socks!), and I can’t wait to meet my Secret Maccabee and properly thank her for everything.
Indeed, the whole city has been teeming with excitement leading up to the holiday. Giant Chanukah displays, complete with lit-up menorahs and dreidels, adorn the neighborhood streets. Stores feature huge signs boasting of “Chanukah Sales!” (not generic “Holiday Sales”).
The chad pa’ami (disposable goods) store is fully stocked with plates, cups, napkins, and centerpieces all emblazoned with “Chanukah Sameach” wishes. Even the local busses driving through the city proudly display “Chag Sameach” signs, in addition to the names of their intended destinations.
And perhaps best of all, outside so many homes of the city, you can see special glass boxes being set up for menorah lighting. While I admit that I always enjoyed the holiday lights that decorated homes in New York, they simply “can’t hold a candle” to the magical quality of the simple, pure lights of the menorahs peppering the streets and homes here in Israel. This year we are lighting our candles by our apartment window, but hopefully we will be properly set up to light b’farhesya (in public) next year!
Perhaps taking after his mother, my son is also excited to be celebrating our first Chanukah here in Israel. In preparation for the holiday, he had one important item on his wish list – a new dreidel. While we own driedels from past years in America, these bear the letters nun, gimmel, heh, and shin, which stands for “neis gadol haya sham – a great miracle happened there.” We needed to upgrade to an Israeli sivivon (Hebrew for dreidel) with the letters nun, gimmel, heh, and peh, which stands for “neis gadol haya poh – a great miracle happened here.”
Indeed, as my son pointed out, the miracles literally happened here, as Modi’in was the hometown of the famous Maccabees and an integral part of the Chanukah story.
Having happily settled into our home in Israel amidst a pandemic and international chaos, I intimately feel that a neis gadol has happened here. And as we finally reached Chanukah after a month of preparatory celebration, the words of the Shehechiyanu blessing rang truer then ever before. We are truly blessed that we have been kept alive, sustained, and brought lizman hazeh, to this point in time.
Chag Chanukah sameach to you all!