Gerry Skolnik participated with over a dozen colleagues in the Masorti Solidarity Mission to Israel.
By Gerry Skolnik
As the festival of Hanukkah approaches, hanukkiyot - Hanukkah menorahs - seem to sprout from every public building in Israel, from where I am writing. As often as not, the hanukkiyah is framed, physically, by four seemingly simple words from a special Hanukkah prayer: bayamim hahem, ba''z'man hazeh.
Scholars of ancient Israel tell us that the proper translation of those words is "in those days, at this time of year." But whenever I see that translation, my mind goes back to an experience I had 40 years ago, as a student on a one-year program at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
It was, to use a coined phrase, a cold and stormy night in Jerusalem, nasty in that uniquely Jerusalem winter kind of way. I was a long way from home, missing my family more than a little, and I had decided to take myself into town to try and find a better frame of mind. As clearly as if it were yesterday, I remember being on the number nine bus, which ran from the Givat Ram campus of Hebrew University, where I was living, into the center of Jerusalem. As the bus passed by the Knesset - Israel's parliament building - I looked up to its roof, and there, lit brightly, was a hanukkiyah framed with those words:
ba-yamim ha-heim, ba-z'man ha-zeh.
It was then - fully four months into my year of studies in Israel - that I realized for the first time the full import of where I was, and why I was there. Were I to stay on that number nine bus for another half-hour, I would find myself at the Mount Scopus campus of the university, literally within viewing distance of where the ancient Macabbees had battled Greek soldiers for their religious freedom. Once upon a time in this place, against seemingly insurmountable odds, our people had shown themselves capable of enormous courage, and strength of spirit.
It was at that precise moment that I began to "get it" about Israel. Bayamim hahem, ba'z'man hazeh. Jewish statehood, Jewish pride, and Jewish courage were not something to be studied about as history, but rather living, breathing characteristics of the Jewish present as well. Whether there in Jerusalem in 1971, or wherever the Jewish spirit resides in a vibrant community in 2012, the message is as timely now - in our own time - as it was in ancient history.
That realization transformed a cold and lonely night in Jerusalem into a moment of transcendent meaning for me. My wife, whose year of college in Israel was just a few years after mine, came to this insight too - for her the moment came during the Yom Kippur War, which transformed her sophomore year into something she could never have anticipated. Many years later, as each of our four children spent their own individual extended amounts of time in Jerusalem as students, they gained this insight on their own. Watching them "get it" about Israel brought us no small measure of joy. The torch was being passed to a new generation. I hope that Hanukkah continues to be as meaningful for each of us today as it was for me all those years ago, and for my family years later. It may be a "minor festival," but its message is major, and timeless.
Hag Urim Sameah! May your Festival of Lights be joyous!