If Hanukkah is not the best loved of Jewish holidays (close second to Pesach, I would guess) then it certainly can claim having the most debated of origins. Is the Festival of Lights about religious observance, fundamentalist violence, Jewish self-determination, Chrismanukkah or simply a base human desire to light a flame during the dark winter months? Traveling down the length of the Nile a year ago impressed on me the mixed cultural messages of the holiday. This year my surroundings have left me with two other Hanukkah lessons.
The first lesson is one I shared with no one, a private message brought home by the dawn light spilling across the desert hills, the weathered tree on base whose leaves shone as gold with the setting sun, the ever enchanting shadows of light from the flickering Hanukkah candles. The beauty of reflected light is a lesson I did not need to wait to appreciate anew this Hanukkah in the army. Yet I did, in no small part to a wonderful book, A Soldier of the Great War, that takes the beauty of light and spins it into a grand tale of love, war and family.
The more public lesson came each night this week when I stood surrounded by dozens of tired young Jewish men, descendants of the Maccabees, dirty green uniforms glowing in the light of candles that struggled to stay lit in the desert wind. Songs were sung, bodies drew closer to protect the candles from the wind, and my thoughts turned to my Hanukkah in Cairo. How fitting that a year after I was unable to light my candles in public, a year after I celebrated the first night of Hanukkah by covering anti-Semitic grafitti on a Cairo wall with a giant Magen David and the words Am Yisrael Chai, a year after I punctuated my Cairo visit by traveling by bus to Jerusalem for the eighth night...
A year later and I stand in the uniform of the defense force of the Jewish state, surrounded by young men honoring the one holiday that recalls the necessity to draw arms in defense of Jewish sovereignty. On our final night of Hanukkah in the army, I briefly told the other soldiers about my experiences a year ago. And then I concluded by reminding them what an honor, what a zechut, we have to be commencing our service the very week of the festival of lights.
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