Bringing Hanukka home

Today’s commuters can personally witness Modi’in’s Maccabean heritage as they travel along the road which leads toward Latrun

Modiin Anabeh park 370 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Modiin Anabeh park 370
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
No other holiday truly brings Jews together in celebration like Hanukka. Considered by the religious authorities to be a minor holiday, you wouldn’t know it by the way Hanukka is celebrated enthusiastically by Jews of all descriptions across the world. Perhaps uniquely, Jews of all hues mark Hanukka in almost identical fashion. Whether religious or secular, Ashkenazi or Mizrachi or from any other background you might imagine, you will be hard pushed to find a Jew who can resist the temptation to light a candle, eat a doughnut or hum a familiar Hanukka holiday tune. It is a magical time in which the light of the hanukkia is elevated into a figurative glow upon the entire Jewish peopleAll of which means that there is no better time to be mayor of Modi’in Maccabim-Re’ut. Our city is the cradle of the entire Hanukka story, the setting for the outbreak of the famous Maccabean revolt which ultimately saw Matityahu and his five sons reclaim the Temple in Jerusalem. In fact, Modi’in is a city steeped in Hasmonean history. The Mishnah indicates that Modi’in was home to the Maccabees, although the Talmud suggests that the town was significant throughout the period in its own right, specified as a landmark day’s walk from Jerusalem.
Today’s commuters can personally witness Modi’in’s Maccabean heritage as they travel along the road which leads toward Latrun. On a nearby hilltop known as Umm el-Umdan, an ancient synagogue has been uncovered.
Peeling away the layers of this fascinating archaeological discovery has revealed evidence of Jewish existence on this spot throughout every stage of antiquity.
The site includes a three-room rectangular structure dating from the Hasmonean period in which it is easy to stand and imagine Matityahu and his sons gathered in prayer centuries ago. The rough hills and uneven valleys which surround it would have provided perfect terrain for their band of Maccabean fighters to escape the attentions of Antiochus’ forces and ultimately to plot their downfall.
Meanwhile, on the other side of Modi’in, the discovery of a burial site dating back to the Hasmonean era halted construction on Route 443 several years ago. The whole area is quite simply historic Hanukka country.It will therefore come as no surprise that Hanukka is a particularly thrilling time of year in Modi’in. Like all major cities in Israel, special performances and public events will take center stage. However, we will also observe two unique Modi’in traditions, both filled with particularly powerful meaning. The annual torch relay pays homage to the Hanukka story and the journey which our Maccabean ancestors began in Modi’in, eventually fighting their way to victory in our eternal capital Jerusalem.
Each year, runners pass a symbolic torch from hand to hand over the 32 km. distance between the two cities until it is eventually delivered to Israel’s chief rabbi to use in lighting the hanukkia at the Western Wall.
In the years before 1967, the torch was received in Jerusalem by the president of the state at his residence. This special tradition has truly developed in tandem with our national history. Meanwhile in recent years an equally meaningful ritual has been observed on the Shabbat of Hanukka. Increasingly large numbers of local residents gather each year at the ancient synagogue of Umm el-Umdan to pray in the exact same spot as our forefathers.
With powerful symbolism, they cradle the Torah scroll in a stone indentation forged in a wall facing Jerusalem, using it for the exact same purpose for which it was evidently created centuries ago.
Of course, our evocative traditions are simply a reminder, an expression of the true meaning of Hanukka.
And one of the beauties of the holiday is the plurality of meanings behind it. Traditional religious interpretation has always regarded the Hanukka tale as a parable of divine power, while the classic Zionist analysis highlights the triumph of Jewish national endeavor. Some view Hanukka as the victory of spirituality and faith over brute Hellenistic physicality. Others take an opposing position pointing to Hanukka as the very model example of Jewish military power.
We are told that such diametrically conflicting views on Hanukka even extend to how we light the candles.
Famously, Rabbi Hillel argued that we begin by kindling one light while Rabbi Shammai believed that we should start by lighting all eight.
And yet despite the contradictions of Hanukka, we have managed to preserve a rare moment in time in which we celebrate together, as one nation united. Perhaps this encapsulates the ultimate lesson of Hanukka – we can either let the fog of darkness envelop us or we can instead light a candle to banish the gloom. At this one special time of year, we are able to put aside the divisions in our society and our nation and together celebrate a remarkable common heritage and shared future.
I am proud to be mayor of the city on which this extraordinary moment is founded.The author is mayor of the city of Modi’in Maccabim- Re’ut.