Last year, I wasn’t very good about celebrating the Jewish holidays. Matzoh is hard to get here, and, having a seder alone doesn’t sound like much fun anyway, so there goes Passover. Realistically, I’m just not going to build a sukkah in my backyard, so Sukkot is out too. Compared with other Jewish holidays, though, Hanukkah was easy to celebrate in Rwanda. All you really need is candles, which are sold at every shop in the country. Of course, I didn’t bring a menorah with me, but melting candles onto a strip of cardboard works just as well, right?
I’ve told some members of my community that I’m Jewish. Most people simply understand that to mean I am a different type of Christian, a 7th Day Adventist, or even a Muslim. A few have a clearer understanding of what Judaism is, though, and I decided I would try to explain the story of Hanukkah to them.
For those who don’t know, Hanukkah is celebrated in commemoration of the reconsecration of the Temple in Israel around 200 BCE at the end of a war between the Israelites and the Syrians/Greeks, who were trying to prevent Jews from practicing their religion. After the Maccabees, the Jewish rebels, drove the Syrians from Jerusalem, they went to purify and rededicate the Temple (which had been temporarily used as a temple to Zeus or some such god by the Hellenized Syrians.) However, when arriving at the temple, they discovered a problem. There was only enough oil for the lamp that burned every night in the temple to burn for one night. It would take eight days to produce more oil. Through a miracle, the small vial of oil remaining continued to burn for eight nights, and that is why we light candles for the eight nights of Hanukkah, the “festival of lights.”
All the Rwandans who heard this story said that it was very good, and a good reason for a holiday- to celebrate our history. I had never really thought about Hanukkah that way before. It strikes me, though, that a fair number of Jewish holidays celebrate events from our history, particularly hardships that have been overcome by over the years. That is something you don’t necessarily see in the holidays of other religions. After some reflection, I found that this is probably one of the major reasons I continue to self-identify as a Jew, despite not being particularly religious. Although I may have never consciously realized it before, I value the connection my religion gives me to my heritage, to the past, and to something larger than myself.
Something I did not expect to find in Peace Corps that has actually ended up being a big part of my service is the consideration of religion, faith, and their place in my life and the lives of others. Through conversations about my religion, by attending church as a way to integrate into the community, and even in interactions with other Peace Corps Volunteers, I have had a lot of opportunities to really examine these things, and I promise at some point in the future I will try to write out these thoughts and post them here.