Voices from the field

Light in the Darkness: A Chanukkah Story

By Alex Feder

Most people know that the phrase “Festival of Lights” refers to Chanukkah, but it took a special experience in Jerusalem’s central bus station for me to really grasp the meaning. In December 2013, I was at a food court when a man several feet away said ezra b’vakasha, which means “help, please” in Hebrew. I looked over and saw that he was blind and needed assistance at an ATM. We talked a bit as he finished his transaction, then he asked me, “Would you help me run some holiday errands?” I told my friends I’d meet them later and led him to the elevator. He asked for the bakery and bookstore, two neighboring shops near the front entrance. As the man went about his errands (with surprisingly little help from me), I learned that he was fluent in five languages, all self-taught. He was in the bookstore to pick up an audio book to learn French. The more I learned about him, the more interested I became.

While at the bookstore, I bought a copy of a children's storybook called Menorah Under the Sea. It is about a Jewish marine biologist who was on a scientific mission to Antarctica to study sea urchins that live in the freezing water at the bottom of the world. His mission took him to Antarctica during Chanukkah, which presented two problems: 1) the sun shines a full 24 hours a day at the south pole that time of year, and 2) he was far from his family during the holiday. How would you light candles in the darkness if it never got dark? To solve this problem, he dove to the bottom of the Antarctic ocean to arrange sea urchins and starfish in the shape of a chanukkiah. He then shined his flashlight on them to illuminate the scene.

After the bookstore, in an act of gratitude, the man bought me a sufganiyah to enjoy. “Take a bite,” he said. “The jelly inside is the best part,” as if I had never tasted a sufganiyah before. Of course, I’d been eating these since I was a kid, but at that moment I pretended it was my first bite. My new friend, though, didn’t see the relationship as such a one-way street. Here he was, welcoming me, inviting me to celebrate our traditions, teaching me something new. I answered his request for help, and I was instantly a part of his family - after all, who else would you trust with your ATM transaction? He was able to develop relationships and communication with so many around him in personal and profound ways, that suddenly I asked myself: Which one of us was truly living in “the dark”?

Following both my experience with this man and reading the story of the marine bioligist, I started thinking about the phrase “a light in the darkness." Darkness and illumination, I had discovered, were relative. “We all experience our own darknesses, and each of us is blessed with a unique set of lights we are able to shine on the world and ourselves."

With the tragic events that have transpired in Israel over this past year, there has been much darkness. How can we, together and as individuals, use our own "lights" to illuminate amidst darkness?

!חג חנוכה שמח

For some additional Israel-centric Chanukkah books, please see: