Banish the darkness with a Festival of Light- no matter what your religion
My aversion to Hanukkah streetlights, national-religious pride and surprising similarities between different light festivals- all explored here.
The lights put up in Israel around the time of the winter festival of Hanukkah evoke mixed feelings for me. You probably think that's strange- why would those neon blue 'hannukiahs' and garish yellow strings of lights do anything but fill my heart with festive cheer?!
Jewish in a Christian Country
Let me explain- I grew up in the cold country of England in a religious Jewish family, in a religious Jewish neighborhood and went to religious Jewish schools. Jewish beliefs were instilled in me from a young age and I grew up proud of my religion and happy to be a part of the Jewish community. However, beyond my home, neighborhood and school was a multi-cultural world that I interacted with on a daily basis. Multi-cultural as the country is, Christianity is the most widely declared and practiced religion in England and this was felt strongly around the autumn-winter time when Christmas decorations would start appearing everywhere. And this, my friends, is the root of my sinking heart that is combined with the smile on my face as I see the Hanukkah decorations adorning the streets in Israel.
You see, the Hanukkah decorations are made using the very same kind of lights that were used to decorate the English streets with festive Christmas scenes. So, on the one hand I have a surge of pride in seeing these Jewish decorations adorning the streets of the Jewish homeland in anticipation of the eight-day festival of Hanukkah. On the other hand, it makes me a tiny bit sad that those decorations will always be associated, in my mind, with Christian festivals. I look forward to raising children here who will know only to associate those lights with Jewish holidays.
Why I Believe Jewish People Should Grow Up in the Jewish Country
No, I'm not anti multiculturalism and growing up with an awareness of other cultures and religions. But I do believe that Jewish children should be growing up in the Jewish homeland, surrounded by Jewish decorations, signs and people. My religious identity is very strongly tied to my national identity and as much as I will always be thankful for the freedom granted to the Jewish people in England to live their lives as Jewish people, I firmly believe that Jewish people should be living and growing in their most natural of places- in the land of Israel that according to Jewish ancient sources was promised to us centuries ago and is the place where the Jewish people can most fully recognize their destiny.
Hanukkah in a Nutshell
Well, now that I've got my mixed-feelings about Hanukkah street lights off my chest I can concentrate on the beauty of the festival and its messages. The eight-day festival is a simple one to celebrate and is therefore embraced quite whole-heartedly by Jewish people of various religious levels. All that needs to be done is to light a nine-branched candelabrum in commemoration of the miraculous story of the solitary jug of oil that was large enough to keep the candelabra in the Temple alight for one day yet lasted for eight days after the victory of the Maccabees against the Greek forces in Jerusalem. I possibly just told you the Hanukkah story in one sentence. I invite you to search for more in-depth explanations of the festival thought, it's quite fascinating.
In addition, to lighting the candelabra together with the family in the cold winter month of November/December, depending on when the festival falls (the Jewish calendar is a lunisolar calendar as opposed to the solar Gregorian calendar and for this reason, its festivals fall out at different times on the Gregorian calendar). There is a wickedly wonderful tradition of eating deep-fried foods (in reference once again to the miracle of the oil), as well as dairy foods (based on rabbinic literature-check this custom out too- also fascinating). We play with a special spinning top called a Dreidel (a story in itself) that comes in all shapes, sizes and materials, light candles, sing songs, eat fried foods with an emphasis on doughnuts and enjoy family time. It's truly as fun as it sounds.
Other Light-Festivals in a Nutshell
While we’re on the subject of Hanukkah, a festival of lights, did you know that there are two other festivals of light? Honestly, I'm not just saying this in order to show how multi-cultural I am, well possibly just a little bit. But, I found it fascinating that just as we have our own wonderful festival of lights, so do those who are adherents to Hinduism, Sikhism and Jainism in the form of Diwali and Buddhists in the form of the Tazaungdaing festival.
· A five-day festival celebrated October/November time (they too have a lunisolar calendar)
· One of the most important festivals of the year
· Celebrated by lighting small lights that symbolize the triumph of good over evil
· New clothes are worn, sweets and snacks are shared with family and friends
The Tazaungdaing festival:
· Celebrated in the eighth month of the Burmese calendar
· Marks the end of the rainy season in Burma, where it is a national holiday
· Monk-robe weaving competitions are held for two consecutive nights
· Hot air balloons lit with candles are released in order to drive away evil spirits
· Charity is given
· Concerts and secular festivities are held
Turns out that light festivals of different faiths have quite a bit in common. I wonder how it could be hold a Jewish-Hindu-Buddhist celebration of light- any takers?