It’s the age old debate: is this oil-filled eight day holiday spelled Hanukkah or Chanukah? Well, boy do I have some news for you. English isn’t the only language that uses transliteration.
After skipping salsa class to take a two and a half hour bus ride to Quito on a Friday afternoon, I rushed to the unusually short bathroom line. With my oversized highschool backpack in tow, I hesitantly left the terminal with the help of Google Maps. After about twenty minutes of incessantly following the blue dot, I approach a large, long white wall basking in the afternoon sunlight. A palm frond hangs over the otherwise impeccable white, creating a familiar shadow. Approaching the dark security box perched in front of two solid iron gates, I see an oversized mezuzah and take a deep breath. I’m in the right place.
I give them my name and see through the window a print out of my past emails with the secretary, surely littered with grammatical and spelling errors. They ask to see my passport, which of course I don’t have. So I fish my drivers license out from the worn, two zipper Ecuadorian chachki that’s morphed into my permanent wallet, hoping it will do. Handing it through the ultra-secure metal contraption, I wait what seems like five minutes while two men decipher if I intend to bomb the place up.* The gates slightly open, and one of the two men step out, asking to see my overstuffed backpack. Only after that did I get the green light.
Walking through the gates, a metaphorical wave washed over me. The sandstone brick, beautiful domes, and a breathtaking view erased every apprehension I had about visiting. I knew this was a place I belonged.
The secretary, Daniella, took me on a walking tour of the grounds. Who knew putting a yamaka on your head for the first time in four months could be so exhilarating? From the sanctuary, to the Hebrew classrooms, to the gigantic social hall, I was that dumb visitor who couldn’t stop smiling. Lead to the office, Daniella gave me the wifi password without even asking for it! What hospitality.
I arrived at 5:20, ready to “pray” around 6, as was relayed to me in the emails. When you mix “Ecuatime” with “Jewish time”, it turns out services start around 7:30. Go figure.
Lighting the Hanukkiah and eating sufganiyot no-so-subtly reminded me of the special dinners and latkes being consumed at home. I thought Hanukkah away from my familiar routine would cause homesickness. In reality, this celebration was so much more understated that I didn’t equate it to home at all. And, it helped I was fully focused on trying to carry a conversation with my subpar Spanish skills; there wasn’t much time to zone out and think about home.
But, more than just the holiday, this experience opened my eyes to the Jewish identity I have been intentionally repressing due to my integration into in the very Catholic life I now lead. There were so many similarities to my community back in Oakland, it’s hard to put a finger on what struck me the most:
The Rabbi’s kids run around before services, using each pew as a jungle gym: the same.
The patterned carpet you can stare out for hours is the same.
Women dye their hair the same.
There is the same candy used to bribe kids to sing prayers in front of the congregation.
The same dude who sings super loudly: we get it, you know the prayers. Mazel Tov.
The same sprinkle of elitism.
Giving a prayer book open at the correct pages to guests: the same.
The same people sneaking peeks on their phones, then drawing attention to themselves by sitting for too long when everyone else stands for the Aleinu.
The same sense of belonging.
I can’t believe it has taken me more than three months to find this amazing community. More than ever, I am grateful for my Jewish upbringing and very special community at Temple Beth Abraham. I finally connect with Rabbi Bloom’s closing words to each Hebrew school class and intention that drives the entire hebrew curriculum: arm each student with the skills to attend any Shabbat service in the world and know what’s going on. Mission accomplished, Rabbi.
Now, I just can’t wait for Purim!
*Spoiler Alert: I have no intention of causing any harm. I am also sorry if this joke offended anyone, bombing is not a topic that should be joked about.
Here’s a dictionary for all the words I referenced that you goys might need a refresher on:
Goy: A non-Jew.
Mezuzah: The box thingys that Jews hang on their doorposts.
Yamaka: The cute hats to cover bald spots. Or connect with God, your choice.
Hanukkiah: The Jewish version of a candelabra. It has 9 places for candles: one for each night and a helper to light.
Sufganiyot: Jelly doughnuts
Aleinu: The long prayer that comes at the end of services where the kool-kat Hebrew Schools kids bend up and down!