Modi’in and the hanukkiah: The Jewish right to light

Those of us fortunate enough to live in Israel can personally visit the archaeological finds of the Maccabee period and walk through the modern city from which stemmed the revolution.

US Army chaplain Rabbi Alan Greenspan lighting the hanukkiah with Jewish soldiers in Vietnam in 1965 (photo credit: Courtesy)
US Army chaplain Rabbi Alan Greenspan lighting the hanukkiah with Jewish soldiers in Vietnam in 1965
(photo credit: Courtesy)

As American Jews growing up in Hebrew schools in the 1940s and 1950s, it was a great thrill to learn about the Jewish revolt in Modi’in. There, Mattathias, the father of the Maccabean brothers, initiated an uprising against the Hellenists.
After raging battles, the Jews under the leadership of Judah Maccabee triumphed and the Temple was carefully cleansed – especially the ner tamid (sanctuary lamp), which was then rekindled. How happy we were when we were taught about that miracle when only one cruse of pure oil sufficient for one day miraculously kept the ner tamid lit for eight days.
My close friend, Rabbi Stuart Geller, and his wife, Ellyn, have children and grandchildren living in modern Modi’in, so I asked what the city of old means to him. After first being students in Israel in 1967, they always wanted to live in Jerusalem, and 20 years ago, their dream came true when they made aliyah.
“Now we live in Jerusalem and our daughter and son-in-law and grandchildren live in Modi’in,” he began. “We go there often, driving down from Jerusalem. As I drive along the wide boulevards and beautifully landscaped traffic circles, a wonderful thought enters my mind. If the Maccabees could see us now! Sometimes, when driving around the city with the grandchildren, I feel how the modern city underlines, in its own way, the heroic story of Modi’in. Surely, many Israelis and immigrants have the same feeling.” Geller reminisces what he learned in his youth about Modi’in. “I do have a strong memory about Modi’in. In my childhood, we went to ‘heder’ after public school. I was enthralled with the principal telling the heroic story of Elazar single-handedly bringing down the ferocious elephant of the Greek army. I always cherished the idea of Mattathias standing up for Judaism and fighting back.” He likes to link the Modi’in of today with the ancient city for his grandchildren. “Modi’in is elegantly laid out and virtually all white. In the description of the city by Josephus, he refers to a tower built of marble, which could even be seen from the sea.” Sometime, on family hikes around Modi’in, Saba (grandpa) Stuart asks his grandchildren when they are at the top of a hilltop, “Do you think this is the hill which the Maccabees used to build that famous tower?”
For those of us fortunate enough to live in Israel, we can personally visit the archaeological finds of the Maccabee period and walk through the modern city from which stemmed the revolution. The Jews living outside of Israel can catch the spirit of the holiday by lighting their hanukkiah.
We are all very familiar with the fact that Eliezer Ben-Yehuda revived the Hebrew language with determination and great scholarship. I only learned recently from Prof. Steven Fine’s definitive work, The Menorah, how the word hanukkiah came to be.
“Hemda Ben-Yehuda, the wife of linguist and early Hebrew speaker Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, sought to differentiate the Hanukkah lamp from the increasingly present seven-branched lampstand of modern Jewish culture and from modern lighting fixtures.”
With the Ben-Yehudas, if you didn’t have the Hebrew word, you created one! “There was an increasing need for nouns in modern Hebrew for these fixtures, especially with the electric light bulb,” Fine writes. “Thomas Edison invented; our Hebrew pioneer found the appropriate word for it.
“Ben-Yehuda drew on a rather obscure noun developed by Jews in the Balkan lands, ‘hanukkiah,’ in order to distinguish the Hanukkah lamp (‘menorat ha-Hanukkah’) from other sorts of menorahs. The range of possible detonations for the menorah is thus broad and eclectic, as it is for most nouns that have been used for generations (and for this one, for millennia).” It was a pleasure for me as the holiday draws near to learn how the word “hanukkiah” came into being. Over our eight decades, as many new hanukkiot reached the market, we like others bought a few “hanukkiot” so that we and our children could illuminate the holiday in our own personal way.
Initially, when we were first married in the 1960s, we bought candles, which appeared to be American made but were actually produced in Japan. Israeli manufacturers realized that Jews around the world would be excited to purchase candles made in this country. The entrance of that Israeli product into the market was quite dramatic because of the origin of the candles and their multi-colors.
Prof. Marshall Sklare, a noted Jewish sociologist, pointed out in a study about the rituals practiced by American Jews that Hanukkah was number one. He noted that Hanukkah clearly is celebrated around Christmas time, but it is the only holiday everyone can easily observe in their home without any major preparations. The observance of Hanukkah has grown and grown, as Chabad battled and triumphed for the lighting of a giant hanukkiah in the public domain. In addition, hanukkiot have become such a significant art form, that many Jewish people – religious or not – have them on display. “If we have it, let’s use it,” is a refrain widely heard.
My own personal Hanukkah public lighting experience occurred in Fort Sill, Oklahoma. I was an army chaplain there for two years between 1965 and 1967, during the Vietnam War. One of the Jewish chaplains several years before I arrived was anxious to let the entire post population know that it was our Hanukkah holiday. The construction staff built a two-meter high electric hanukkiah for him.
I never found the paperwork of the request for this brightly colored wooden hanukkiah, but when Hanukkah came around the first year I was on duty - my assistant and I took it out of storage.
Using electric light bulbs for the eight “candles” and the “shamash,” they could easily be screwed into each socket. Of course, there was a long cord running from the hanukkia to the electric socket inside our small building. We had no switch – we just plugged it in every night and then screwed in the appropriate number of bulbs.
The design on this hanukkiah was quite exciting, in my opinion.
There must have been an amateur artist among the Jewish soldiers stationed at Fort Sill. On the hanukkiah were the two major historical figures of the holiday, Judah Maccabee and Antiochus. They could only be one-dimensional, but they were dynamic.
Judah Maccabee was dressed in armor with his sword at his side. Antiochus had royal robes but he also had a sword waiting to fight with his challenger. The story had been initially told in heavy colored paint, and each chaplain who used it restored it every year.
We lit it every night, encouraging the Jewish troops to come, by offering them the treat of corned beef sandwiches. Kosher corned beef in packages had found its way to our PX store. Each night we invited a high-ranking officer to be present. In addition, the highest ranking Jewish officer, Col. Jack Wolfson, on the staff of the commanding general of Fort Sill, came most nights of the holidays.
The Jewish Welfare Board, the civilian authority permitted to supply Jewish paraphernalia, certain canned kosher foods and holiday gifts for the soldiers, decided to send metal hanukkiot, with candles of course. The problem was hanukkiot could not be lit in the barracks. Some of the soldiers were enterprising and made a stand outside the barracks for the hanukkiah. To this day, more than 50 years since I was there, that giant hanukkiah is lit each year.
When I went to Fort Sill, Oklahoma in September 1965, Chaplain Alan Greenspan, a career chaplain, was assigned to Vietnam, where he served for nine months. In The Jerusalem Post, I have written about his Passover Seders in Saigon in 1966 and also about the Rosh Hashanah services he conducted. His son, Dr. Ari Greenspan, told me “my father won two air medals for the hundreds of flights he took in a war zone.” We have our own Hanukkah story. My wife and I had purchased a few different hanukkiot, but we were always seeking one which would be personally meaningful for us. On a small lane in downtown Jerusalem there was a fine craftsman, Mishaeli, who worked with a bronze metal. We spoke with him, and we asked if we could design our own unique hanukkiah with him.
Grapes have always been our family symbol since our name is Geffen (which means grapevine in Hebrew). Our patriarch, Rav Tuvia Geffen z’l, used to quote a midrash which focused on the grape vine. “When grape vines are uprooted in one locale and planted in a different site, they begin to grow with leaves and then delicious grape clusters.” In our family, we believe that when someone relocates, he or she will produce new “fruit.” In this age of vast immigrations, this principle has become real for every nation of the world.
Mishaeli was an expert using his hammer to fashion the metal with which he was working. On the vibrant background of our hanukkiah, is a large leaf on which there is a luscious grape cluster which stands out from the background. Grape leaves encompass the cluster.
He fashioned the eight candle holders so that each stood on top of a grape leaf. A long screw holds each one of the “kanim” in place, and makes it possible to unscrew the candle holder to clean the wax out.
When facing the hanukkiah, you see the shamash on the right welded into the large leaf almost parallel to the grape cluster. We have been delighted to kindle this hanukkiah for over 20 years.
Last year, as a treat at the assisted living facility where my late wife Rita z”l lived, I brought the hanukkiah, and Rita and I lit it together for the residents and their families. What a wonderful feeling it was to kindle the hanukkiah you designed with the artist burning brightly.
As you gaze at your hanukkiah especially lit in this corona age, be a Maccabee and do your best to protect and preserve all Israelis!
The writer is a rabbi who made aliyah from Atlanta with his wife, Rita, and three children in 1977