Chanukah – Po ve’Sham (Here and There)
The truth is Chanukah doesn’t carry much religious significance. Indeed, the holiday’s historical basis – the Maccabean revolt and the rededication of the Holy Temple – is described in the books of Maccabees, but it is one of the few Jewish holidays not mentioned in the Bible itself. Nor does Chanukah come with the religious restrictions on work that the true chaggim have (much like the restrictions on Shabbat) other than for a few minutes after lighting the candles. Nevertheless, it’s one of the most celebrated and fun Jewish holidays both in Israel and in North America.
Growing up in Israel, I still remember my excitement for Chanukah every year. Without an official winter break, the 9-day vacation from school starting one day before the holiday is the closest it gets, and is much anticipated since the last day off at the end of Sukkot. The winter is a wonderful time to travel throughout Israel and as a teen I used to spend half of my Chanukah vacation with my youth movement, hiking in the Negev desert, where it rarely rains but is extremely cold at night! Another popular Israeli Chanukah tradition is attending the festivals and seeing the mega-production children’s shows that tour the country. The great repertoire of Hebrew Chanukah songs (which in my opinion beat any other holiday songs) is everywhere. And unfortunately for whoever is trying to keep himself on a diet, so is the smell and sight of the yummy, oily, fried foods (I also had to draw the line myself once after devouring four sufganyot in one day!).
In North America too, Chanukah has gained increased importance over the years and taken a place equal to Passover as a symbol of Jewish identity. One noticeable reason for that of course derives from it being a Jewish alternative to the Christmas celebrations that often overlap with Chanukah. However, the dominance of Christmas in American culture doesn’t imply Chanukah’s passivity; on the contrary, it demonstrates the respectable place of American Jewry in American society and shows that Jewish culture can survive and even flourish amid a non-Jewish majority, as it has for two thousand years.
One thing I’ve learned during my shlichut is that there are robust and vibrant opportunities to participate in Jewish life in America today, but unlike in Israel, it requires a more willful decision. Last week I was lucky to experience such the peculiar opportunity of attending the URJ Biennial and participating in the NFTY Leaders Assembly. For several days I was part of a collective of a few thousand(!) people who socialized, sang, studied, prayed and ate Shabbat dinner (the largest ever, they say) together, but above all, were there to celebrate being Jewish.
Chanukah reminds us that all these things can’t be taken for granted. Both in Israel and North America we count our blessings and honor the sacrifices of our ancestors that allow us to enjoy the national liberation and religious freedom we have today. For me this is the definitive meaning of the holiday.
Rega Shel Ivrit
Nes Gadol Haya Sham/Po נס גדול היה שם/פה (“a great miracle happened there/here”)
Indeed, there are several differences between Israeli and American versions of the holiday. For one, Israeli kids would never get presents for every day of the holiday. Also, though menorah is a Hebrew word, Israelis call the special nine-branched one we light in Chanukah a “Chanukiya.” But the nuance I like the most is actually displayed on the dreidel: the letters נ ג ה ש for Nes Gadol Haya Sham (“a great miracle happened there”) appear on America’s dreidels, but in Israel the dreidel reads נ ג ה פ standing for Nes Gadol Haya Po (“a great miracle happened here”). So if you happen to celebrate Chanukah in Israel, don’t be alarmed, it isn’t a typo.
Chag Chanukah Sameach,
About the Author
Roey Schiff is the NFTY Shaliach. Roey grew up in Ein Vered, Israel and has experience working with teens and leadership development. He also holds a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and Business Management from Ben Gurion University. In September 2010, Roey moved to NYC to act as the NFTY and Israel Programs Shaliach as part of the URJ Youth Division.