This year is my first Chanukah in Israel. Growing up, we always timed our trips to Israel for the summer, so as to maximize beach time. So now, almost a year after I moved to Jerusalem, I’m celebrating my first Chanukah as an Israeli.
I decided to mark the first night by going to the candle lighting at the kotel, the Western Wall. Walking through the Old City, something that I always enjoy, I began to feel the sense of history and belonging that, for me, is ubiquitous with Jerusalem. The eternal stones of this city, particularly the Old City, are silent witnesses to the passage of time. They’ve seen countless pilgrims, conquerors, and travelers, and walking through the streets and alleyways of this part of the city always fills me with a sense of connection to all of the generations that came before me.
The feeling of connection is something that I love, and something that I always feel should grow stronger as I walk towards the Wall. However, this is a place of tension for me. In all of the times that I’ve been there, I haven’t felt a particularly spiritual connection to the place. For me as a Jew, it’s a holy site, representative of the Temple, and the direction of prayers. But for me as an individual, it’s not the stones themselves that I feel a connection to. Rather, I feel profoundly linked with the idea that for generations of the Diaspora, continuing until today, this has been the place that Jews around the world turned to when they prayed, and thought of when they dreamt of returning to Israel. It’s the feeling at being at the place where all of this energy is directed that makes me feel something.
However, as a woman, particularly a woman who grew up relishing in Egalitarian prayer and loved leading services, there’s something suffocating about the Wall. Over the last few years, I’ve struggled with this place, as a supporter of Women of the Wall, and as someone who (until relatively recently) was a Diaspora Jew. When I visited the Wall with my grandmother, and a haredi man offered to pray in my grandfather’s memory (for a donation), I felt a rush of anger. Because he, a man, was praying in this particular place, was that more meaningful than my prayers at home?
These feelings bubbled up inside me as I walked down the steps from the Jewish Quarter, approaching the Wall as the sun set over Jerusalem.
I joined the gathering crowd, and was happy to overhear the conversation of a few girls standing nearby. With all of my feelings of hesitation and discomfort, their excitement over spending Chanukah where it really took place brought me back to the beauty of the moment. Regardless of what it represents today, and the feelings that it brings up for me, this is the place where the story that I grew up with actually occurred. I live in the place where Chanukah happened, and am able to celebrate it within site of where the miracle of the oil took place. There’s something staggering about that thought, and what it means for me as a Jew, to be able to say that.
Once I focused on community, and the feeling of connection, the night became beautiful. Standing alone, yet surrounded by people that I am connected to, emphasizes what it is to be a part of something larger than myself. Joining Jews from around the world, with different accents and native languages, there was something undeniably tribal about all of us, secular and religious, natives and visitors, chanting the same prayers together. This is the place that connects all of us, and the traditions that bind us. So the next time I visit the Wall, that’ll be what I try to keep in mind. And next Chanukah, no matter where I am, I’ll be able to think back about the feeling of standing where it happened, where history was made.