Chanukah Lights Ablaze Amongst Backpackers
By Adrienne Paige Leder
As I carried my heavy backpack through the narrow maze of the hostel's hallways, I never expected that this would be the home of one of the most unexpectedly enjoyable Hannukah celebrations.
I had arrived in the tiny town of Blenheim, the gateway to the Marlborough wine region it the north-east tip of New Zealand's South Island.
In a small town of less than 30,000 inhabitants and backpacking by myself, I had resigned to the fact that I would be spending the first night of Hannukah alone, without candles, without dreidels, and certainly without latkes. I had convinced myself that it really wasn't such a big deal to miss out on Hannukah. After all, I was half way around the world backpacking on a shoestring, and latkes were not an easy thing to find. Besides, Hannuah wasn't really such an important Jewish holiday, right?
Still, I couldn't help craving a few steamy, hot and salty latkes, piling high on paper towels, fresh from the skillet. I thought about the usual scene in my parent's kitchen my brother and I trying to sneak a few crispy morsels from the plate as our mother waved us away with the spatula. Perhaps I could at least find a baked potato for dinner, or maybe a fried donut for dessert.
After I settled onto a couch to browse through my guidebook, I recognized the unmistakable quick banter of Hebrew. I peered over my book to find three travelers arguing with each other while handling a few scraps of wood.
One of them, noticing my eavesdropping, curtly asked, "Why are you looking at us?" Yes, they were definitely Israelis.
Using a few bits and pieces of Hebrew that I knew, I discovered that these three backpackers were discussing the best way to construct a Hannukiah (menorah) from the salvaged scraps that they found in the hostel. With a tube of superglue, scraps of wood, and eight half-burned votive candles that they found scattered around the hostel, along with quite a bit of ingenuity and creativity, the Israelis cobbled together a fantastic Hannukiah.
They invited me to celebrate the first night of Chanukah together with them. It wouldn't be fancy, but they had pounds of potatoes and onions, and they could use another hand with the latke preparation. Really, what more could I ask for?
We took turns grating the potatoes and onions on the hostel's old and dented shredder, and I smiled in delight as the latkes piled high on layers of industrial brown paper towels that we swiped from the hostel's bathroom. We couldn't help but sneak a few samples before the plate made it to the table. While I was used to applesauce and sour cream on my latkes, I learned about the Israeli tradition of dipping the freshly fried latkes into a plate of sugar. Though I had my doubts, I discovered that it is actually quite tasty.
We lit the candles, recited prayers loudly and with joy in the hostel's common room, opened up a few bottles of local wine, and spent hours singing Hannukah songs while other travelers looked on with curiosity.
Though this Chanukah celebration may have lacked a delicious roast, the closeness of family, and the joy of gambling with the dreidel, it had an unmistakable link to tradition. It brought strangers together, it involved songs and prayer that have been sung by millions over centuries, and it was all about celebrating the connection that brings Jews together all over the world.
Though nothing can replace the comfort and familiarity of celebrating the Jewish holidays with family, there is something special about spending a Jewish holiday abroad in unfamiliar surroundings. Over the years, I have experienced a range of Jewish holidays overseas, from Passover in Tokyo, where the Haggadah is in Hebrew, Japanese, and English; to breaking the fast in Stockholm with all sorts of delicious herring; to celebrating sukkot in Laos, where a mobile sukkah constructed on the back of a truck is driven around to different backpacker towns to reach out to the wandering Jews.
Celebrating the Jewish holidays abroad reminds me that no matter what community I am in, the strength of the Jewish holidays and traditions survive; and that is certainly something worth celebrating.
So, no matter whether you are together with the warmth and support of your family, or you find yourself in unfamiliar surroundings with a Hannukiah constructed from scraps, have a very healthy and happy Chanukah.
from the December 2009 Edition of the Jewish Magazine