Shabbat Chanukah

Chanukah is an eight-day Jewish festival also known as the Festival of Lights. This year it coincided with the first Sunday in Advent and also with Thanksgiving. I enjoyed the pleasure and the privilege of sharing in the celebration of Shabbath Chanukah, the Jewish Sabbath during Chanukah, with a Jewish family in the settlement of Efrat. The small town extends for a couple of miles along the west-facing side of a long ridge southwest of Bethlehem in the West Bank.

I am, of course, well aware that Israeli settlements, such as Efrat, which lie within the Occupied Palestinian Territories, are illegal under international law. Nevertheless, I make no apology for accepting the hospitality of a Jewish family in their modest apartment in the middle of Efrat. I am keen to hear as many different voices as I can on all sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

These people are not evil, any more than my Palestinian friends are. The mother of the family agreed with me that everyone should be treated with respect. The father of the family sometimes exchanges friendly greetings with Palestinians whom he encounters on his early morning runs in the valley below the settlement. I can’t imagine that either of them would condone unprovoked attacks on Palestinian farmers.

Both mother and father were born and grew up in the United States. They came to Israel with two young children 17 years ago. Two more children were born and the oldest daughter is now married, so the family now consists of mother, father and the three younger children, two girls and a boy.

I had a little difficulty finding my way to their apartment because I only had an incorrect phone number and no address. I knew that I had to get off the bus from Jerusalem at Dekel commercial centre, but we had gone well past it when the bus driver remembered that I wanted to get off there. Fortunately I had no difficulty hitching a lift back to Dekel. But I then discovered that the phone number that I had was wrong.

There were quite a few people around and I approached a man who looked as if he might be able to help. He didn’t recognise the family name, but had a very clever phone (it might have been an i-pad or some such gadget) that told him the address that I wanted: just across the road and down the hill a little way.

Father and son opened the door to me. After a moment’s surprise, because I hadn’t rung them to announce my arrival in Efrat, they welcomed me in. I was soon offered a cup of tea, which is just what an Englishman needs, and fell into conversation with the son of the family.

Mother arrived fairly soon and we discovered a shared interest in history. Our conversations – in between the lighting of candles, meals, synagogue visits, conversations with other members of the family, and spending time working on a jigsaw with her son – ranged over episodes in Jewish history and church history. She was particularly interested to hear about the “church struggle” (Kirchenkampf) in Nazi Germany and about Meister Eckhart. We got to talking about mindfulness and Thich Nhat Hanh.

She has taught yoga in a women’s centre in the Bedouin town of Rahat in the Negev, but the centre has been burnt down six times. She has been persuaded that the Bedouins need government help to enable them to leave traditional patriarchal structures (e.g. polygamy) behind and enjoy the benefits of modern society (e.g. proper sewerage). I agreed that there are problems that need to be addressed, but I said that demolishing people’s homes and confiscating their land is not an acceptable solution. She seemed to think that I had a point and said that she would find out more about the Prawer Plan.

On both Friday evening and Saturday evening, shortly before I left, we lit candles in several Menorah. Each Menorah can hold nine candles. One main candle, either the central one or the first or last one, is raised above the others. Only this one candle is supposed to be used for reading or other activities. Over the eight nights and days of Chanukah one more candle is lit each evening, one on the first evening, two on the second evening, etc.

So on Friday evening, the three children and I each had our own small Menorah on a table by a window. We each lit the main candle and three more candles. Then father and mother lit the same number of candles on a full-size Menorah which they had placed outside the door to their apartment.

May light radiate throughout the world and into the darkest corners of our hearts during this wintertime.

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