I'm always happy when my Chanukia, my Chanukah lights display box, is up outside my front door and doing its job of displaying each night's Chanukah lights to the world at large.
I think it's the only one of its kind in Finchley.
Most Jews in England, and in most diaspora countries observe Chanukah by burning candles in Chanukah menorahs like these, which were burning at the home of my friends A & S when I visited them last night.
Chanukah is the Jewish festival most advocates of multiculturalism feel at home with. Children in English schools often know of Chanukah when they know nothing else about Judaism, or other,much more important, Jewish festivals. That's because there's a dominant trend in religious education in England to teach about other religions through what I see as a rather limited comparative religion approach. So children are taught that Chanukah is a festival of light, just as Diwali is taught as the Hindu festival of light and Christmas, with its Christmas candles, is the Christian festival of light.
The great irony of all this is that one of the main themes of Chanukah is that it commemorates resistance to multi-culturalism and assimilation. For it commemorates the success of the Maccabean uprising against colonization by the culture as well as the armies of ancient Greece. Greek culture saw itself as universal. The more gods the better. Just add your tribute to the local gods, in exchange for them giving their tribute to yours.
Modern multi-culturalism still incorporates something like that way of thinking. We'll hold an assembly about your festival. But then of course we expect you to join in the dozens of assemblies, the hymn singing, the prayers, the carol service and the harvest festival of ours.
It had immense appeal to a huge section of the Jews of ancient Israel. They thought hanging out at the local baths and ampitheatres the Greek conquerors built was great stuff. They adopted Greek names, like Jason. Some of the men went as far as to have operations which were supposed to reverse their circumcision, so they wouldn't show out amongst the genuine Greek hunks hanging out at the baths. Makes initimate body hair waxing seem wimpish. Sound familiar?
The Maccabees scored a stunning victory. A poorly armed guerilla group defeated the then mightiest, most technologically advanced army in the world. And in modern secular Israel, this military victory theme emerged as something that become a major reason for celebrating Chanukah. Israeli secular politics being what they are, it's still being used as a lever to argue for this, that or the completely opposite political position. But most Israelis these days are much more interested in the pleasures of Chanukah as a festival when you enjoy eating traditional oil based foods, and which are the best latkes, and which are the best doughnuts?
The orthodox Jewish religious position does actually focus on light. But not as a generic "festival of light". It is about a specific victory of faith, when the Jews who rededicated the Temple, after they'd removed the idols and the paraphernalia of Greek worship, set the Temple menorah lamp burning. They knew they didn't have enough consecrated oil to fulfill the Torah requirement to keep the light burning until they could make the batch of oil they needed. Yet they lit it. And, miraculously, the oil lasted eight days till they did.
So having oil lights rather than candles is a bit of a marker of religiosity. But my Chanukia is much more than that. It's ten years this Chanukah since I first revisited Israel after a thirty three year absence. I had never previously spent Chanukah in Israel. And I had never seen the old city of Jerusalem.
When I was there in 1962, there was just a huge black wall that divided the modern Jerusalem from the old city with its walls and the site of the Temple. No-one on the Israeli side could visit the Western Wall, which in Hebrew is called the Kotel. It's the remnant of Herod's Temple, the holiest site for Jews. Jews had traditionally gone to pray there right from the time of the Roman dispersal, down to 1948. Then the Jordanian Army, commanded by British officers, and helped along by the British Army, captured the old Jewish quarter, expelled its Jewish residents and barred Jews from entering.
On the first night of Chanukah that December in 1995, it was Erev Shabbos too. I walked with my daughter, on her first visit to Israel, down from the ancient walls and the Zion Gate towards the Kotel. Hundreds of people were hurrying down there alongside us. But we slowed down as we went, for we saw something we'd never seen before. It was the sight of dozens of Chanukiot just like mine, hanging on the outside of the houses of the Jewish quarter, with their lights burning so beautifully.
In diaspora households, Jewish observance has always been much more discreet. It goes on behind the curtains. Maybe if you're that bold, you might open your curtains. But putting your Chanukah lamps on the outside of your house (as the tradition says you should)-- well, no.
One of a series of photos my daughter took throughout Chanukah in Jerusalem last year.
And I was enchanted by the hand-crafted style of these lamp boxes. I immediately wanted to get one and bring it home to England. They didn't seem to be in any shops, only rather repulsive machine made versions.
A few days later, we visited the heart of Mea Shearim, the most traditional and super-observant quarter of Israel. There was a stall that was selling the lamp boxes. It was clear they were hand made by a Mea Shearim craftsman. And I bought one. So then we were faced with the problem carrying it around for the rest of our stay in Israel, including visits to Eilat, Rehovot and Tel Aviv. My daughter valiantly took on the role of guardian of the lamp box and she lugged it along with us through all our travels and onto the plane and home.
We later saw that they had the identical box, obviously by the same craftsman, on display in the Israel Museum, as part of its glorious display of Chanukah lamps from all the ages and subcultures of Jewish history.
So my Chanukah lamp box has quite a history. And I'm so proud of it.