December 29, 2005
Menorah on the Mountain
Kibbutz Ketura, in the south of Israel, is a small, quiet agricultural settlement, with a rich tradition of community celebration.
Behind the kibbutz looms a stately limestone cliff that can be reached by a 45- minute climb up a well-worn goat path. The view from the top of the cliff is stunning, particularly at sunset, when the red mountains of Jordan on the opposite side of the Arava Valley turn radiant shades of pink and purple. With Ketura and its neighboring kibbutzim laid out in crisp panoramic detail, one might easily miss the seemingly irrelevant series of nine giant ashcans that stand along the edge of the cliff like silent, rusted sentinels. But they are one of the most important cultural icons of this little kibbutz. This is the community's Chanukah menorah.
Each night of Chanukah, a different child from Ketura's b'nai mitzvah class ascends the mountain at sunset, accompanied by a parent, and lights the Menorah. This is by no means a simple task. First, though, the climb itself is a rite of passage, which the children generally have mastered by the age of 5. In the winter it may be cold or windy and, by definition, the harrowing descent is under cover of darkness. Moreover, there is a complicated series of primitive tools employed in order to light this somewhat makeshift arrangement.
On this night, I am the parent, but as such, I am only a passive participant. The menorah is prepared and lit by my daughter, the bat mitzvah. First, there are rags, pilfered from the kibbutz laundry, which are stuffed in the top of the cans and soaked with diesel fuel to serve as giant wicks. Special care must be taken to load the central ashcan, perched higher than the others on a bump in the hill. This is the "shamash." Then, an old, dry palm frond, stripped bare of its leaves and crowned by fuel-soaked rags, becomes the torch to light the "candles." All is prepared. We wait. We ponder the vast emptiness of the desert and the stunning good fortune that has befallen us that we may be allowed to call this little spot of heaven our home. Just as the darkness begins to descend on the valley, it is time. My daughter pulls out the matches and prepares to light the shamash. Together, standing in the wind, we couple a modern tradition and an ancient one and recite the blessings. "Asher kidshanu" (We have been commanded); "she'asa nisim" (He has performed miracles for our ancestors), and, of course, the blessing that never fails to move me, "Shehechiyanu." He has brought us this far. This far to this place in our lives. This far to this spot in the world. This far to this moment. This far to this mountain, to this celebration of miracles, ancient and modern.
The lighting itself is dramatic. Moving with simple grace through the darkness, my daughter lights the torch and, finally, returns the torch to the shamash. We gaze in silent awe for a few minutes before we begin our descent, constantly looking back over our shoulders at the flames that can be seen for miles. Below us in the kibbutz, though we can't see them, we know that families are gathered outside, staring up at the menorah that we have lit. The little children are pondering the homemade miracle of lights and the adults are perhaps pondering other miracles. Together, as if cued by the menorah on the mountain, the families will each go back inside to light their own little menorahs and say their own blessings.
The Jewish people are a people of endless cycles. Relearning the Torah every year, rebuilding the sukkah every year. Recounting the omer and rehanging Haman. When my daughter and I reach the bottom of the mountain, just before we return home through the back gate of the kibbutz, we look up one last time, and without a shred of self-consciousness, we sing a lusty chorus of "Maoz Tzur." One more cycle rekindled, one more reinterpretation of an ancient tradition. One more generation. Chag Sameach. Shehechiyanu.
Bill Slott is a licensed Israeli tour guide, educator and cantor. He lives on Kibbutz Ketura in Israel's Arava Desert with his wife and three daughters.