Friday, December 10, 2010

Hanukkah in Korea

Hanukkah had never meant much to me when I was younger. I thought it was the pretext to Christmas and that the candles were meant as a decorative way to bring in the holiday season. Every year, dad would say the prayer in Hebrew, my brother and I would both be holding the shamas, lighting the candles. My mom would be standing with us at the table. Hanukkah to me was always identified as dad's holiday, and Christmas as mom's. Judaism is very matriarchal in nature, but there was something special about the three men of the family lighting the candles together, uttering ancient words of which I had no understanding.
As time progressed, I understood the story and meaning of Hanukkah a little more; or maybe I should say that I developed my own meaning. Hanukkah is not a major holiday (though it is practiced as such in the States). But the simple act of lighting candles in the dark is a silent testament to existence, to being. It is the speck in the universe declaring that it exists, however illuminating. While some with a pessimistic existential bent may celebrate the banality of such a statement, I celebrate the gravity of it. Nothing has changed in the last few thousand years. We may now have smart phones, email, hectic schedules and everything and everyone vying for our time, but this is no different than it ever was. More often than not, people forget to reflect. As an aside, one of the most meaningful moments of recognizing the Sabbath is to look at one's hands, think about what they have accomplished and what they will accomplish. I believe this is symbolic of the illumination, the declaration of survival, of community, of self-motivated purpose.
Hanukkah never meant that much to me. Until I began to celebrate it alone.
Hanukkah, or any holiday for that matter, never makes a whole lot of sense when celebrating it alone. In college, I had a couple Jewish friends and we would celebrate. But I think we celebrated the commonality of being Jewish (and the fact that we had beer in our possession) more than the spirit of Hanukkah. Or maybe that is the spirit of Hanukkah. I'm not too certain, but it felt right at the time.
After college, I spent my first Hanukkah truly away from home in the Philippines. My first Hanukkah there, I made a menorah out of tin foil and catholic prayer candles (procured by my host mom) and I celebrated with my two younger host sisters whom had never heard of the holiday nor Judaism. They seemed to enjoy the same aspects I did when I was younger, candles are pretty in a dark room after all. I was glad to share the holiday with people but there was still something missing. Later I realized it was intent. I hadn't intended a purpose for the ceremony, just going through the motions.
I decided I would ask my grandma for a real menorah, one of my own and the centerpiece around which I pictured myself building community.
My dad came to visit by the eighth night of Hanukkah during my service in the Philippines.

This was my second Hanukkah away from home but as fortune would have it, home came to me. And to think this is what "broke in" the menorah from my Grandma. This would be the foundation of the community, passing on the baton or, shamas, if you will. We led the prayer together, accompanied by my host mom standing in the background. It felt similar to those days of my childhood, mom joining in silent support of the ceremony of the men.
Emek, IDF Officer
After I got home form Peace Corps, I had the opportunity to go on birthright to Israel for two marvelous weeks. I had learned and experienced a lot there. I think the most important lesson came from the Israeli Defense Force (IDF). An IDF officer told my group that the purpose of the IDF is not to defend Israel but the nation of Judaism, including us in the US. Indeed, the IDF is responsible for rescuing persecuted Jews in Africa, Yemen and Argentina. If an officer in the IDF can dedicate his life and career (as he was serving beyond the term of conscription) to the support and sustenance of a community he had never met, never will meet but is persistant in inspiring his decision, I could invite that same community around my menorah.
By the time I got back from Israel, I knew, more or less, that I was going to Korea.
After I arrived, my dad sent me a box and inside were the menorah from my grandma, proper candles and a dreidel. These were novelties and I keep my menorah proudly on display in my apartment. It looks nicer now that it has wax all the way down it's base.
Hanukkah this year was very personal, in that I was the only person celebrating in my small Korean town. With a menorah used by both my father and I and lessons learned from Emek, the officer in the IDF, I was not truly alone.
Holidays never make much sense when celebrated alone. But my Hanukkah is now about community, not people around the menorah. My Hanukkah is about the speck declaring its existence in the face of an ambivalent universe, surrounding myself with those I love, those I care about, those I have never met and those I never will meet, Jews and gentiles alike.
My Hanukkah required a little improvisation for food.
Seeing as there is no gefilte fish in Yecheon, or most likely in Korea, I substituted with Swedish Fish, sent by my dad. As for the latkes? A can of Pringles sufficed, though I do miss Bubby's latkes with applesauce.
My menorah from my Grandma, a dreidel from my dad and a kipa I bought in the old city of Korea