(December 9, 2015 / JNS)
When I was a kid, Hanukkah was my favorite holiday. I loved the family get-togethers, the latkes my mom made, and of course, celebrating for eight nights (read: receiving gifts for eight nights). I loved to play dreidel, a game where you spin a top and take or give up your gelt (coins) depending on how the dreidel lands.
On each of the four sides of the dreidel is a letter of the Hebrew alphabet standing for one of the Hebrew words, a “Great Miracle Happened There”—Nes Gadol Haya Sham (N, G, H, and S).
The miracle: When the Jews rebelled against those occupying their sacred Temple, their oil for the menorah lasted eight nights despite the fact that there was only enough oil to burn for just one night.
The observance: We celebrate by staying true to the Jewish saying, “They tried to kill us, and we prevailed, so let’s eat!” We light a menorah each night, sing special Hanukkah songs, and eat all the fried things, like latkes and sufganiyot (jelly donuts). Families also exchange gifts so the kids don’t grow up sad that we don’t celebrate Christmas.
The place: the Second Temple in Jerusalem, Israel.
Back in 2011, I traveled to Israel on the last night of Hanukkah. Being the last night (and the first night of my jet lag), I didn’t see much, but I made it my mission to buy a dreidel for my family. In Israel, the dreidels are different. Instead of the inscription “A Great Miracle Happened There,” it says “A Great Miracle Happened Here,” so one of the letters on the dreidel is different. There was something very cool about knowing that the celebration occurred HERE, rather than THERE.
While this may not sound like much to someone who has never played dreidel, it was one big mind-blow for me. For most of my life, I never knew that there was another type of dreidel. The madrich (guide) of my ulpan, an Israeli leader, told us that, likewise, he didn’t know that outside of Israel, dreidels say “there”!
This year will be my first full Hanukkah in Israel, and it’s pretty inspiring to be in the land of “here.” And it makes “here” that much more significant to me. It connects me even more deeply to my people’s past in Israel, and reminds me that “there” will never be “here.” Anywhere outside of Israel is a “there.” And that sentiment—the significance of Jerusalem and Israel—is very poignant for Jews.
On every holiday, we reference Jerusalem and greater Israel. We say a prayer for Israel, we read what happened here in the Torah, and we long for Israel. Reflecting on my childhood and our Jewish traditions, I have come to realize how much Jewish children get a sense there is another place in our lives and our identity, another home. Perhaps one of the reasons why I felt I had to come to Israel was in search of self-discovery, similar to the way someone who is adopted from another country yearns to go back to where they were born, or seeks a connection to their parents.
Maybe it’s because of my curiosity. If I hear, a “Great Miracle Happened Here,” it is hard not to wonder about the land of these so-called miracles. And the miracles that have happened remind us of the miracles that are happening now in Israel, and the miracles yet to come.