Being a Navy family comes with all kinds of positives and negatives. We get an incredible opportunity to live in places we’d never normally venture (Hawaii! Japan! Germany!), experience lifestyles vastly different from the ones we lived growing up, and befriend people we’d never normally meet if we lived regular, civilian lives in the U.S.
Conversely, being stationed far from family is hard, especially around the holidays — and even more so when you’re Jewish and live in a world where Jews are few and far between.
Growing up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Hanukkah was resplendent with the smell of latkes frying in the kitchen, the house decorated with our elementary-school crafted dreidel cutouts and haphazardly glued menorahs (which may or may not have been fire hazards). We could visit the synagogue gift shop or local stores for Hanukkah decorations and to stock up on our family favorite, Hanukkah socks. We gathered as a large, extended family to light the candles, eat, sing, and exchange gifts. I have so many happy memories of spinning dreidels with my cousins and baking cookies with them while Hanukkah music played in the background.
When my husband (an active duty Naval officer) and I (a young and energetic elementary school teacher) got married, we embarked upon our first duty station far from family in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. There, lighting our Hanukkah candles actually made me feel more alone in the dark. Especially on the nights he was required to stay on the ship or was deployed, it was so hard to feel the light of the holiday when I was saying the blessings in my darkened home, the single flame of the shamash seemingly illuminating my loneliness in carrying on my traditions.
Occasionally, however, we lucked out, arriving to a new duty station and finding a small but tight-knit Jewish community to help share those traditions. Finding a close Jewish friend in Hawaii, or a similarly observant Jewish family in Yokosuka, Japan, helped me no longer feel so alone, and during Hanukkah, the light of the candles shone a bit brighter. Now that we have 3 young daughters of our own, we are able to observe holidays and Shabbats together with a ragtag bunch of similar people who would come and go throughout the year. Our congregations at each base at which we’ve been stationed have been comprised of Jewish families, interfaith families, curious Christian families, and a smattering of Jewish active duty military members looking for a family far from their own, and together we leaned on one another to help fill the void we were all feeling.
Last year, however, was different. Last year we were in Japan. It was our first foray into the holiday season in public schools with our kindergartener, and after a few hiccups involving Santa Claus, I was almost dreading Hanukkah. There were no Hanukkah candles sold anywhere (I asked a friend in the States to run to Target and mail me some), I was worried my daughters would be singularly focused on their friends celebrating Christmas, and we were again missing our extended family. Gifts for the kids were slow to arrive in the mail, due to the time difference we were unable to Skype in to the annual family Hanukkah party, and the quickly approaching holiday somehow felt underwhelming and gloomy.
But then, a miracle happened. Out of the blue, a neighbor asked if we could teach her kids the basics about Hanukkah. Another neighbor chimed in saying she would love the same opportunity for her kids. I was suddenly, surprisingly, inundated with requests to share Hanukkah with a group of eager kids and parents, and before I knew it, I found myself planning a party for the neighborhood. I ordered dreidels, gelt, and Hanukkah stickers (thanks, Amazon!), made a ridiculous number of latkes, ordered two dozen jelly doughnuts from the on-base Dunkin Donuts, and baked Hanukkah cookies with my girls.
On the third night of Hanukkah, over 40 of our non-Jewish friends and neighbors, fellow military families associated with the base — running the gamut of enlisted, officer, contractor, and government employee — came over to our tiny home to learn about the holiday. As they munched on latkes, they playfully disagreed over whether they preferred sour cream or applesauce. The kids traced their fingers to make a menorah craft. Dreidels were spun, gelt was consumed, and laughter abounded.
As we lit the menorah and sang the prayers, we were surrounded by a room full of amazingly supportive and loving neighbors who wanted nothing more than for us to feel at home in our on-base community. With gratitude bursting in my heart, I realized that the darkness I had been feeling about Hanukkah was actually bursting with light.
Header image via Wikipedia