Jerusalem—Nes Gadol Haya Po, A Great Miracle Took Place Here.
Like many American-born Jews, for most of my life, these words held no significance for me, other than my subconscious automatically correcting “Nes Gadol Haya Sham,” the sequence of the Hebrew letters nun, gimel, hey and shin, which are featured on our dreidels. These four letters started out as an easy-to-remember acronym on the German-inspired game, only adopted into the traditional Ashkenazi observance of Chanukah in the late 1600s.
However, in the early 20th century, several forward-thinking Jewish poets living in Mandatory Palestine decided to put a historic twist onto the game, switching the “sham” (there) to “po” (here)—hardly surprising given the Jewish State’s modern spat of miracles, not to mention that the ancient Chanukah miracle in fact took place in the Land of Israel. This may have led to the Maccabee-themed naming of Israeli cities Chashmona’im and Modi’in Maccabim-Re’ut, not to mention the popular draft beer and health clinic Maccabee, and the Maccabiah games, which will again be taking place this summer.
Nonetheless, anyone who has spent the Festival of Lights in the Holy Land, and especially the City of Gold, can attest that Israeli Jewry takes the mantra Nes Gadol Haya Po beyond the spinning of the sevivon (Hebrew for dreidel)—in fact, it becomes a lifestyle in the holiday season here.
Within a week of the end of Sukkot, over two months before Chanukah even begins, festive sufganiyot (doughnuts) already begin appearing in bakeries around the country. The delicious sugary, oily smell fills the streets, crevices and corners of Jerusalem, as each seller tries to outperform the other with tasty, innovative flavors and variations on the traditional jelly-filled treat. Jews of Eastern backgrounds, on the other hand, keep it simple with the traditional spinj, a fried dough treat that has changed little since its inception in Morocco and Tunisia. The result: Every Israeli can already sense the approaching Chanukah holiday from weeks away, as their overall health reaches its annual low.
Jumping ahead to the beginning of the month of Kislev, Jerusalem experiences another Chanukah transformation as pop-up stalls seemingly appear overnight with the month’s New Moon in Zion Square (at the bottom of Ben Yehuda St.), at the First Station, around the already crowded Shuk Machane Yehuda, and nearly every other imaginable public space. Their wares? Any Chanukah-related product one could imagine. Menorot, candle-lighting supplies, holiday treats, artwork, jewelry and souvenirs. Anything to help bring the Chanukah spirit to the homes of its denizens.
Also, approximately a week before Chanukah, the main thoroughfares of Jerusalem are adorned with blue and white electric lights in the symbol of David’s star, hanging on street lamps, road signs and pretty much anywhere the city’s maintenance can find space to put them. Though Israeli efficiency ensures that these lights remain up well into the early months of spring, they are a fun and colorful reminder to Israel’s drivers of the impending holiday.
Thus, as Jerusalemites approach the end of Kislev with lighter wallets and higher cholesterol, there is no doubt that Chanukah is nigh. However, when the chag begins, the material aspects of the holiday take the back burner to tradition and Jewish Israeli values. Beginning on the eve of the first day of Chanukah, most schools and businesses dismiss their students and employees early to allow them to join their families for candle lighting at the preferred time of nightfall; some even close for the duration of Chanukah so that their workers can enjoy Israel’s main winter break with their loved ones. Even the workplaces that don’t make these arrangements will usually have a small candle-lighting ceremony after nightfall every evening, where even the non-observant and non-Jewish will join—from my own experiences, I can attest that this was perhaps one of the biggest highlights of my Chanukah last year, helping find kippot so that many of my coworkers could join in thanking God for the miracles he performs for our people. “Mi K’Amcha Yisrael Goy Echad B’Aretz, who is like Your nation Israel, one nation in the Land (of Israel).”
During Chanukah last year, I was going for a run through Jerusalem’s predominantly Chareidi neighborhood of Bayit Vagan, and decided to try keep track of the number of menorot I would pass along my route. I very quickly lost count of those lit indoors, and, after a few minutes, even the chanukiot lit outdoors, as I counted over 300. And, this was just on one block of one back street of one neighborhood of Jerusalem. God promised our forefathers that their descendents would eventually be so numerous that we would be impossible to count like the stars in the sky and the sand of the desert—on Chanukah, this becomes abundantly clear to anyone walking through the streets of Jerusalem at night.
When it comes down to it, Chanukah in Israel, and especially in its capital city of Jerusalem, is like nowhere else. Everywhere else in the Western world, the Festival of Lights is lumped together with other winter holidays, and it loses some its unique identity as a result. In other countries in the Middle East and North Africa, outward observance of Chanukah can be as dangerous now as it was 80 years ago in Europe, and the holiday is all but omitted in those areas. But, in Israel, in the Jewish State, in a country where the world’s smallest monotheistic faith forms the majority, the culture is almost exclusively focused around Chanukah. Furthermore, with all of the miracles surrounding Israel’s establishment and continued existence, there is no doubt that every Israeli Jew, no matter what his religious background or level of observance, can say with certainty that he’s seen miracles take place here, and can have real meaning when thanking God for the miracles he’s done for us “in these days, in this time” before lighting candles. In Jerusalem, the City of Gold, the eternal capital of the Jewish People, it is never a stretch to say “Nes Gadol Haya Po.”
Wishing all of our readers a Chanukah Sameach!
By Tzvi Silver/JLNJ Israel
Tzvi Silver, a Teaneck native, has been living in Israel since 2011. He is in his final year of studying electrical engineering at JCT-Machon Lev in Jerusalem, works as an investigator for Israel’s Ministry of Justice and serves as JLNJ and JLBWC’s Senior Israel correspondent.