After a month of celebratory preparation, Chanukah finally arrived. The kids were thrilled to spin their new sivivonim (dreidels), stuff themselves with the best sufganiot, and, of course, open the fun surprises from our Secret Maccabee (see last week’s column).
Even with all the excitement, it felt strange to mark another chag apart from our family. As long as I can remember, Chanukah was always celebrated with extended family – cooking latkes with grandparents, swapping presents with cousins, and lighting menorahs alongside aunts and uncles. But like all the other chagim we’ve celebrated here, we did our best to make our celebration here in Israel special.
As I mentioned last week, our new home is uniquely tied to the Chanukah story as it is the hometown of the Maccabim. Throughout the city there are various historical and archeological sites connected to the Maccabee time period, and my husband and son were lucky enough to participate in a shul trip for the local kids to one of these sites.
This site, Um El Umdan (“the City of Pillars”), was uncovered incidentally in 2001 when the city was leveling ground to create a new road. Located a mere seven-minute drive from our home, the location boasts a synagogue that according to archaeologists dates back to the Hasmonean period.
While the second Beit HaMikdash was still standing, synagogues were places for communal gathering and Torah studies. Who knows? Perhaps even the famous Maccabees gathered there. The synagogue continued to be in use even after the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash, all the way through the rebellion of Bar Kochva. According to archaeologists, it may be the oldest known synagogue in the world today!
My son was thrilled to explore the synagogue’s well-preserved ruins as well as the nearby mikveh. The clear highlight of the trip for him came when the tour guide handed out a couple of coins bearing the imprint of Alexander Yanai (the second king of the Hasmonean dynasty) that had been unearthed in the area. It was mind-boggling to him that he was literally touching a piece of history rather than viewing it through a glass case in a museum.
In fact, one of the highlights of the pilot trip we took before making aliyah was participating in an actual archaeological dig in Beit Guvrin National Park called “Dig for a Day.” It’s run by Archaeological Seminars, and visitors are invited to get down and dirty and dig in man-made caves that date back to the Hellinistic period.
Although my son was only four at the time, and not allowed to use a pickaxe or shovel, he eagerly sifted through the pails of sand. Each discovery of a snail shell (used for dye), bone (from chickens), and broken pottery brought new shouts of excitement. Forget about digging a hole to China; here in Israel you can dig yourself a tunnel all the way back to history. (Find out more about this amazing program at https://www.digforaday.com.)
Given his fascination with history, it was little surprise to find that Adi’s favorite Chanukah gift this year was a book called Adventures in the City of David, which is about two Israeli kids exploring the archeological excavations of Ir David, which is thought to be the actual location of the biblical city of Yerushalayim, captured by David HaMelech thousands of years ago.
With the help of “Uncle Ronni” (an archaeologist), a Tanach, a map, and an exploration of the city’s underground tunnels, the boys together try to uncover the mystery of how David successfully conquered the fortified city. The best part of the book perhaps is the lesson that in Israel even two ordinary kids can help unravel historical mysteries if they realize Tanach has already laid out the roadmap for them.
Transplanting our family to Israel was a drastic move. We left behind so much in America for an unpredictable life here. But as we dig deeper into our new lives, we are discovering just how deep our roots actually run here. Our family may have lived in the Diaspora for generations, but here in Israel, our family tree dates back millennia.
Our history and our future are inextricably tied to this land. As we continue to settle in here, we just need to keep our eyes open and shovels ready – who knows what great treasures we have yet to unearth.