My Word: Here and there; then and now

When my parents moved to Jerusalem, they adopted the local practice of lighting the candles outdoors in a special glass case.

December 22, 2016 21:37
HANUKKA DREIDELS display the letters of the Hebrew acronym for ‘A great miracle happened here.’

HANUKKA DREIDELS display the letters of the Hebrew acronym for ‘A great miracle happened here.’. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

It’s a two-letter word, but it signifies a huge difference. “Po” means “here” in Hebrew, “sham,” also two letters in Hebrew, means “there.” And that, in short, sums up what it means to celebrate Hanukka in Israel compared to celebrating it in the Diaspora.

The eight-day holiday, also known as the Festival of Lights, commemorates the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, in the second century BCE, after the Jews, led by Mattathias and his five sons, rose up against the Greek-Syrian oppressors in the Maccabean Revolt.

Hanukka is rich in traditions – lighting the candles in increasing numbers every night, eating oily foods such as latkes and doughnuts, giving gifts and coins (chocolate or real) to children and playing games with the special spinning top, known locally as a sevivon and often referred to abroad by the Yiddish word dreidel.

In Diaspora communities, the four sides of the sevivon are marked with the first letters of the words “Nes gadol haya sham,” which means “A great miracle happened there.” In Israel, the letter “shin” is replaced with a “peh.” For Israelis, this is very much “here.” This is where it all happened.

Growing up in London, where Christmas trees and Christmas lights were more obvious than candelabras, and where carols provided the seasonal background music, I longed for a sevivon with that crucial letter “peh.”

In its description of the festival, the site notes: “The events that inspired the Hanukka holiday took place during a particularly turbulent phase of Jewish history. Around 200 BCE, Judea – also known as the Land of Israel – came under the control of Antiochus III, the Seleucid king of Syria, who allowed the Jews who lived there to continue practicing their religion.

His son, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, proved less benevolent... In 168 BCE, his soldiers descended upon Jerusalem, massacring thousands of people and desecrating the city’s holy Second Temple by erecting an altar to Zeus and sacrificing pigs within its sacred walls.”

I appreciate the phrase “particularly turbulent.” Jewish history is never boring.

Jews like to joke that most of their festivals can be summed up as, “They tried to kill us, we survived. Let’s eat.” Hanukka is the “we survived, let’s eat fattening food” holiday.

Doughnuts and chocolate coins go on sale as soon as the Jewish New Year holidays are over in the fall.

Magazine articles and talk shows are dedicated to the topic of how to avoid the seasonal weight gain. It’s easy to burn Hanukka candles; burning calories is much harder.

Children learn Hanukka songs, adverts are aimed at the Hanukka market, festivals and shows are timed for the holiday.

The festival is inescapable, very natural.

When I bought my apartment, the previous owner noted a brown mark on the windowsill and volunteered: “That’s where we lit the hanukkia one year. You need to put something down on the surface before you put something hot there.”

It was obvious to him that unwarned I would make the same mistake.

The custom is to place the Hanukka candles next to a window whenever possible, so that they can be seen from outside. They provide a cheerful sight in the darkest, longest nights, literally spreading rays of light and a message of hope.

When my parents moved to Jerusalem, they adopted the local practice of lighting the candles outdoors in a special glass case.

The difference between “po” and “sham” is that here it is safe to declare, “This is a Jewish home,” and we do so with open pride.

THE START of 2016 was not auspicious. On January 1, there were jihadist terrorist attacks in, among other places, Tel Aviv and Kabul (both at restaurants) and a (non-fatal) vehicular ramming attack in Valence, France. The year did not improve. Aleppo became a symbol, but less attention was paid to carnage elsewhere.

Horrendous attacks took place under the radar of the Western media in places like Somalia, Pakistan, Iraq, Mali and Chad. The July 14 vehicular attack on revelers in Nice on the French Riviera, where 86 people were killed, was an awful milestone. The West began to take ramming attacks, painfully familiar to Israelis, seriously – and no doubt will do so even more after this week’s attack in the German capital.

Following the attacks on the airports in Brussels and Istanbul this year, there was a surge in interest in Israeli security methods in this field too.

When the throat of an 84-year-old French priest was slit by Islamists as he said mass in a church in Normandy in July, all reasonable human beings of any religion were outraged; the attacks on churches in Egypt and Nigeria received less media coverage.

Attacks in the US were well covered, those in badly hit Jordan less so. Just this week, 12 people were killed in the Karak Castle attack.

When it comes to global jihad, everyone is a potential target – Jews, Christians, Muslims and members of other religions.

This week, a double image was seared into the public psyche: In one, Andrei Karlov, the Russian ambassador to Ankara, lies on the floor of a museum gallery, his suit-wearing killer brandishing his gun and spouting slogans. The other image is of the lights going out at the Christmas market in Berlin after a killer plowed a truck into the crowds doing their last-minute holiday shopping. At least 12 people were killed in the attack, for which Islamic State claimed responsibility.

My inbox is full of end-of-year summaries, many of which are depressing rather than festive holiday reading.

The 2016 Global Terrorism Index published by the Institute for Economics & Peace highlighted “the fluid nature of modern terrorist activity.” The figures relate to 2015, and although there was an overall 10% decline in the number of fatalities (the first drop since 2010), accredited mainly to the weakening of ISIS and Boko Haram in Iraq and Nigeria, the report nonetheless noted: “ISIL and its affiliates were active in 15 new countries, bringing the total number of countries in which they were active to 28. This is why a record number of countries record their highest levels of terrorism in any year in the past 16 years.”

UN Watch issued the “Top Ten Most Egregious UN Anti-Israel Actions of 2016.” I almost laughed when I learned that outgoing UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon in his last speech admitted that: “Decades of political maneuverings have created a disproportionate volume of resolutions, reports and conferences criticizing Israel. In many cases, rather than helping the Palestinian cause, this reality has hampered the ability of the UN to fulfill its role effectively.”

Now he’s willing to say it? As the monitoring group noted, “This year the UN General Assembly just adopted 20 one-sided resolutions against Israel, and only four resolutions on the rest of the world combined.”

My 2016 Chutzpah Award goes to UNESCO, which adopted a resolution using Islamic-only terms for Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism, thus negating Jewish (and Christian) links to the site.

It’s a move that seems particularly ridiculous as Jews celebrate Hanukka.

But that, for UNESCO, is neither here nor there.

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