What It’s Really Like Celebrating Hanukkah in Israel

A personal essay by Josh Hoffman, the founder of IZZY

Growing up in Los Angeles, Hanukkah was one of my favorite times of year. It was a time of gifts, good wintry food, and loved ones.

When I moved to Israel in 2013, away from my immediate family and friends in California, and soon learned that Hanukkah in Israel doesn’t come with the same traditions I was accustomed to, the child in me was a little shook.

How would I enjoy one of my favorite holidays when it’s so different than the Hanukkah I grew up with?

As the sun went down to signal the first night of Hanukkah in 2013, and I was at a café in Tel Aviv finishing some work, three young Orthodox Jews walked in.

They said something in Hebrew to one of the servers, which I didn’t understand because I barely knew the language at that point. Then, one of the three boys opened his backpack, took out a menorah, and placed it on one of the tables. The customers seated both inside and outside stopped whatever they were doing and began crowding around the table, and the servers followed suit.

Suddenly, here I was, celebrating the first night of Hanukkah in my new home, with complete strangers, all sharing in an age-old tradition for Jews across the world, and enjoying a moment together before returning to our independent lives.

Ever year since, then I’ve witnessed this same Israeli togetherness and communal celebrations, no matter where I am in the country and who I’m around when it’s time to light the menorah on any given night of Hanukkah.

But when Hanukkah rolled around this year and public areas like cafés aren’t open for dine-in because of the coronavirus pandemic, I presumed the 2020 version of Hanukkah would surely be different like this year has been in so many other capacities.

On this year’s first night of Hanukkah — Thursday, December 10th — I was at our WeWork office particularly late, since Thursdays are our most hectic days at IZZY. It’s when we upload new programming, send announcements to our email marketing lists about the new programing, and this particular Thursday we needed to finish editing the second episode of our docu-reality series, Inside IZZY.

Around 9:30 pm, I ordered dinner for our multimedia designer, Leo, and myself as we put the finishing touches on this episode. When I went downstairs to grab the food from the delivery person, another WeWork member — who I hadn’t previously interacted with and frankly even seen before — asked me if I wanted to join him in lighting the menorah for the first night of Hanukkah. He told me to meet him in the ground-floor lobby after I grabbed our food.

At first, it was just him and me, but quickly more people from the four-stories building started to trickle into the lobby.

For 20 minutes, we wondered aloud about working late on a Thursday, not just the first night of Hanukkah, but also the last day of the Israeli workweek.

We laughed about using face masks as kippot (even though it was done in full respect, since praying Jews often cover their heads with any sort of material object, such as napkins, when they don’t have an actual kippah with them).

And we joined in Hanukkah prayer and songs as we lit the first candle.

When people ask me why I moved to Israel, it’s not just because I think Tel Aviv is the best city in the world (which I do), or because of the relatively great weather, or because it’s conveniently in the center of world.

More than anything else, I moved to Israel because of the Israeli people and Israeli culture which, even during a global pandemic that has shaken Israel both economically and otherwise, uphold the same togetherness and communal values which reaffirm my passion for enhancing the world’s relationship with Israel.

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