By Rabbi Arnowitz
I hope you have all been enjoying following our time in Jerusalem so far through these blog posts and some Facebook posts. I can already see how some of these experiences will also inform the conversations we’re having at WJC, such as the weekly book club on Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor, by Yossi Klein HaLevi. There’s so many conversations I look forward to having with you, the WJC community, as part of the project initiated by our Israel Engagement Task Force to direct our Israel conversation towards culture, history and religious significance. (For more details on that project, please check out the letters I sent last May and November.)
I know that many of you are processing the most recent Israeli election and trying to figure out what it means and what it means for your relationship with Israel. I have been doing a lot of that processing too and I am also available to set up time to speak with anyone who’d like to think and talk things through together. Also, I want to share a podcast from the Hartman Institute featuring Doniel Hartman, Yossi Klein HaLevi (yes, the same one who wrote the book we are reading), and Elana Stein Hain, as they grapple with the new governmental reality. The Podcast is called For Heaven’s Sake and the episode is called, “Responding to Israel’s New Reality.” You can listen on Apple podcasts by clicking here or on Spotify by clicking here.
In the meantime, please know that this blog is a part of that bigger project, but will generally focus on and be a forum for us to share the Israel stories we are experiencing over the course of our trip – the people and culture, the thousands of years of history including recent history, and the religious moments.
So, let me tell you about today. It was pretty intense – The Kotel Tunnels in the morning, a short visit to the Kotel to place notes and have a moment, and the Yad vaShem Holocaust Memorial and Museum after that. We saw great moments in our history, terrible moments in our history, and saw both ancient and recent history and thought about these past events’ implications on life today. But what I want to talk about is the candle lighting we attended, in the rain, in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Nachlaot. Nachlaot is a neighborhood partly made up of Orthodox Jews who have been there for generations and partly made up of young, hip Israelis looking for a cool neighborhood near the Mahane Yehuda Shuk and its nightlife. We took a walking tour of Nachlaot with Ricka Razel Van-Leeuwen, a musician who is not only talented in her own right, but is also part of an amazing musical family here in Israel. Ricka told us some of the history of the area (the 2nd or 3rd oldest neighborhood built outside of the Old City walls) and walked us around to see the beautiful hanukkiot displayed outside people’s homes. We also came across many members of Ricka’s family and got to light candles and sing along with them, including learning 5 more of the verses of Maoz Tzur and a new tune with Ricka’s father. (See this video and this one on YouTube.)
What we didn’t expect was that Nachaloat on the nights of Chanukah is a SCENE. People were sitting outside by their hanukkiot and creating a wonderful, freilich (joyous) atmosphere. And people came from all over Israel and the world to walk around the neighborhood and experience it. One couple was handing out chocolate gelt (called D’mei Chanukah here), one of Ricka’s brothers had a large, elaborate hanukkiah with bulbs of oil burning that would likely last for hours and people were coming to take pictures in front of it – it felt a little like the Rockefeller Tree. As people came by to admire the hanukkiah they were treated to the musical accompaniment of singing, guitar and drums. Six yeshiva students sat facing their hanukkiot and fervently singing. And then we got to Ricka’s house. She had chairs set up for our group and as we arrived her youngest son set up an electric keyboard. And then an umbrella because a steady rain had begun. Then Ricka started singing – Chanukah songs and other Jewish songs with familiar tunes, and around us other people started to gather. Standing in the rain, with raincoats or umbrellas, or just getting wet were over 100 people, entranced by Ricka and then her family joining in. They lit 7 hanukkiot (one for each family member, each of whom beautifully sung the brachot), we sang some more, and then they sent us off with warm soup to fill our bellies. Our souls were already filled.