PHOTOS: A Light Unto Nations

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From the Blog

Chanukah in Israel is celebrated in dramatically different ways from the diaspora.

There is an old joke about what Jewish holidays are all about: “They tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat.” The winter festival of Chanukah is no exception, marking the victory of the legendary Maccabees against the forces of the Seleucid Empire over 2,000 years ago.

The Seleucids, who ruled over Judea in the 2nd century BCE, sought to suppress the Jewish religion and impose a Hellenistic lifestyle on the country. Led by Mattathias and then his son Judah, the priestly Hasmonean family led a guerrilla war against the Seleucids, which they eventually won, liberating Judea from imperial rule and reinstating the Jewish religion. They became known as the Maccabees.

The festival of Chanukah hinges on the Maccabees’ liberation of Jerusalem and purification of the Temple, which had been converted into a center of Greek polytheism. According to legend, when the rebels sought to light the Menorah in the Temple, there was only sufficient oil for a single day, but miraculously, the oil burned for eight days.

When a holiday was instituted to celebrate the successful revolt, it thus became a “Festival of Lights” in which Jews across the world kindle the candles of a chanukiah to mark the occasion.

In Israel, the holiday becomes a festival of illumination, with chanukiot placed in windows across the country. The day is also celebrated with parties, gifts, playing a game of chance with the four-sided dreidel, singing songs, and the eating of jelly doughnuts known as sufganiyot.

As these photos attest, Chanukah is particularly beloved because, unlike many Jewish holidays, which are intensely serious, it is a time of unabashed joy, a celebration of Jewish resilience, courage, and liberation. In Israel, the first Jewish state in 2,000 years, this has a particular relevance, with the Maccabees hailed as national heroes who stood up against tyranny and enjoyed an epochal victory that resonates to this very day.

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Banner Photo: Avi Ohayon / GPO