Chanukah in Israel that coincides with Christmas and New Year’s Day presents to visitors at that time of year some startling contrasts.
The first time I was there when the two holidays overlapped was about 30 years ago, and after I arrived back in New York after the holidays, I recalled that I had not seen even one Christmas tree during that entire period.
Instead, as is appropriate for a Jewish state, Chanukah menorahs of all types were everywhere you turned. But unlike three decades ago, that has changed as well. There will be soft reminders here and there about it being Christmas, especially around the churches that dot even the Old City of Jerusalem.
This time around, our Chanukah jaunt to Israel will present some different considerations as well as opportunities. As it turns out, our children Dini and Eliezer will be in Israel with their children at about the same time as us. When I found out about that, I saw it as a very special opportunity that I hope will be a precedent for the future.
Looking ahead and thinking about what it will be like, I found myself wondering why my parents, who traveled to Israel in the summer for about 25 years, never thought about taking their children along with them instead of parking us in summer camps in places like Ferndale and Swan Lake, New York.
Actually there was one time that we were in Israel together, and that was the summer of 1980, when our daughter Malkie was ten weeks old. By that time my parents had already been traveling to Israel for about 17 consecutive years.
I know my father had this innate personal desire to share his love for and attachment to Eretz Yisrael with his children. That was plain to see just by observing him and my mom. But how do you take such a central priority in our lives, like Israel, and communicate that priority in a fashion that is short of actually organizing a trip and taking us there?
I can think about it and dream about it all I want, but that’s obviously not going to change anything. The impetus for this thought process was learning that my son-in-law had business to take care of in Israel around Chanukah time, the children are off from yeshiva, and, G-d willing, in about ten days we will be on our way.
It adds a unique dimension to our (almost) annual visit to Israel to properly observe my father’s yahrzeit. This opportunity presents us with a combination of the old and the new. The way I see it, among the more conventional tourist type of things we are planning to do is also the idea of walking the streets of Jerusalem with our grandchildren.
They are young children ranging in age from 4–15 years. Two of the oldest were already in Israel rather recently—one before the pandemic, with us, for a bat mitzvah trip with two of her cousins, and another with his father when he first put on tefillin.
The challenge is, in this day and age, how do you manage to imprint on a young child the importance of the eternal relationship between Israel and the Jewish people? There are multiple ways to achieve that, but I believe this is one of the surefire ways to get it done—just being there.
On my daily podcast with my son Nachi—the Daily Thread—we discussed the idea of moving to Israel versus visiting Israel. It’s an ongoing dilemma for most Torah-oriented Jews. Our discussion focused on the contrasts between visiting there and living there. Visiting is very expensive, living there is probably less so, but still expensive, though some say it is appreciably less than the lifestyle here.
For us, for now, we still have that tourist type of orientation. Aliyah is very much encouraged and certainly successfully facilitated by groups like Nefesh B’Nefesh. But I wonder sometimes where Israel would be without all its tourists. That is, not just from New York, but from all of the U.S., Europe, and Africa.
So our plan is pretty much the following, though because young children will be with us I anticipate that most of the experiences will be fresh. First, there are few things as awesome, especially when you are in Israel for the first time or at an impressionable age, as davening at the Kotel on Friday night. This is particularly true on Shabbos Chanukah when the city of Jerusalem is blooming and booming.
Friday night at the Kotel is a multi-dimensional, moving experience, no matter how many times you’ve been there. There is nightfall, with darkness descending, when you hear Kabbalas Shabbos to your right and others still davening Minchah to your left. There are yeshiva students singing and dancing in unison and then there are the usual groups of soldiers, there on this particular Friday night to experience a Shabbos Chanukah in Jerusalem.
After davening Friday night it’s always interesting to observe the crowds of mostly students that surround Jeff Seidel—an institution in Jerusalem—who assigns these young people a home at which to experience a Shabbat seudah in the Old City. What he does and the way he does it after all these decades is just magical. And it changes lives forever.
One of the high points of our itinerary is a visit to Hebron where the Chumash these kids have been learning for years already will come to life. It was just a few weeks ago that we studied how Avraham had to negotiate with Ephron the Hittite to purchase this immense piece of territory as a burial place where our matriarchs and patriarchs are interred.
And then we will take a ride to where Rachel Imeinu passed away at the age of 36 years while giving birth to Yaakov’s 12th son, Binyamin. Of course, studying Torah is a great and wonderful endeavor; walking through the words of Torah, however, is arguably even more wonderful.
Of course there is the principal reason that compels us to be there specifically at this time of year. And that is my father’s yahrzeit. Last Shabbos I walked to a bar mitzvah celebration here in the Five Towns and the first person I saw after davening who greeted me said, “Hey, it’s your father’s yahrzeit in two weeks, right?”
“Yes it is,” I said. “Thank you for remembering.”
We will most likely make time to visit Bnei Brak, but without Rav Chaim there it will be a much different experience. I’ve been told by friends in the city that they’d like us to meet with Rav Meilich Beiderman and Rav Gershon Edelstein, among others.
At some point, we will make our way through the Carmel Shuk in Tel Aviv which, weather permitting, is always fun and interesting. And of course the stroll or the pushing through the Machane Yehuda shuk on erev Shabbos is most memorable.
I remember that on Shabbos Chanukah the custom is to daven Ma’ariv on Saturday night not while it’s still light outside but certainly before it is dark. Twenty-six years ago I was sitting in a hotel lobby holding Nachi, who was then a one-year-old. A man walked by and asked me to join them for a minyan for Ma’ariv. I glanced outside and it looked like it was not really dark yet. I mentioned that observation to the young man who smirked and said: “Minhag Yerushalayim.”
The objective is to daven a drop earlier than usual, affording one the opportunity to light the menorah—this year it will be the 7th night—as darkness sets in.
As you can see, we are looking forward. n
Read more of Larry Gordon’s articles at 5TJT.com. Follow 5 Towns Jewish Times on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for updates and live videos. Comments, questions, and suggestions are welcome at 5TJT.com and on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.