Every year, as Hanukkah approaches, I remove the First Book of Maccabees from my book case. The inscribed purchase date, November 1977, anticipated the Hanukkah following my return from a year-long sabbatical in Israel as Fulbright Professor of American History at Tel Aviv University. It capped the transformative experience of my life that had begun a year earlier following my first trip to Israel when, as a disaffected American Jew, I qualified to participate in a journey of Jewish self-discovery sponsored by the American Jewish Committee.
Living in Jerusalem, I commuted weekly, dutifully teaching American history while learning from my students about Jewish history, Zionism, and the State of Israel. An Israeli colleague who attended my classes (who remains my closest Israeli friend), and a student who had excitedly broadcast the return of Jews to the Old City of Jerusalem and the Western Wall during the Six Day War, were the best teachers I ever had.
That December, my family joined a tour of Sinai. I was slightly uncomfortable, as we waited to enter the bus in Jerusalem, to discover that there were six young yeshiva students among us. They were too “Jewish” for me to easily assimilate as week-long companions. Many hours later, after nightfall, we reached our destination. While passengers scrambled to locate their luggage and sleeping bags, the yeshiva boys were otherwise occupied.
Once they were ready, they called us to join them in lighting the first Hanukkah candle, a tiny flicker amid the vast surrounding darkness. Everyone spontaneously joined in singing “Ma’oz Tzur,” which I had not heard since before my bar mitzvah nearly thirty years earlier. Nothing else in our Sinai experience remains as deeply embedded in my memory as that moment.
We returned to Jerusalem in time to visit the Western Wall for the eighth night. Amid a packed crowd in the plaza we waited, for what we were not sure. Suddenly there was a loud “whooosh” as eight pots were simultaneously ignited, their flames blazing against the background of the Wall. Instantly and together, everyone there — more than a thousand Jews — sang “Ma’oz Tsur.” I felt tears running down my cheeks. I was, finally, a Jew.
As a reminder of that moment, I annually reread the First Book of Maccabees. It tells of the “lawless men” in ancient Israel who urged: “Let us go and make a covenant with the nations that are round about us; for since we have separated ourselves from them many evils have come upon us.” With their followers, “They joined themselves to the Gentiles, and sold themselves to do evil.”
Roused to resist and “fight for our people and the holy place” in Jerusalem that had been desecrated, Judah the Maccabee and ten thousand “valiant men” prayed to God and defeated their enemies. Arriving at Mount Zion, they saw their “sanctuary laid desolate, and the altar profaned.” Judah’s followers “rent their garments, and made great lamentation … and they fell on their faces to the ground … and cried unto heaven.”
They did more. Priests “cleansed the Holy Place” and a new altar was built. On the 25th of Kislev it was rededicated “with songs and harps and lutes, and with cymbals. … And all the people fell upon their faces, and worshiped and gave praise unto heaven, to Him who had prospered them. And they celebrated the dedication of the altar for eight days.” Ever since, Jews have celebrated the 25th of Kislev and the days that follow “with gladness and joy.”
Nineteen centuries later we still do. Nearly half a century ago, in the barrenness of Sinai and then in Jerusalem at the Western Wall, between the first and eighth nights of Hanukkah, I was finally returned to my people. Years pass, but the joy endures.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism, and Israel, to be published in January by Academic Studies Press.