In Israel, Hanukkah Begins in the Shadow of Two Months of War

Israelis gathered again on Thursday evening in the Tel Aviv square where for two months protesters have called for the release of hostages in Gaza, but this time they came to mark the start of Hanukkah.

Holding signs that bore the faces of the 138 people still held hostage and wearing T-shirts, necklaces and yellow bracelets that demanded “bring them home now,” the attendees said this year’s Hanukkah was not a holiday to stay home, but one to gather and support one another.

“Perhaps there’s something in the power of getting together,” Julia Ferment said. “Perhaps some of this energy, this strength, gets to them.”

Relatives of hostages, groups of friends and soldiers huddled quietly close to a long table with 138 candles, one for each missing loved one. Family members and friends were invited to light the yellow candles. Afterward they were embraced as they moved to the front of the crowd.

The Hanukkah blessings, which in Jewish tradition are repeated on eight nights, held a new meaning for the hundreds that sang along, some with tears in their eyes, some with their eyes sealed shut, hands on heart.

A few miles south in Ramla, another group of Israelis gathered to mark the beginning of the holiday at an army base. The reservists, many with graying hair and families back home, delighted to find traditional Hanukkah pastries — jelly doughnuts called sufganiyot — waiting for them when they walked into the warehouse for dinner. Another reservist had just proudly sprinkled powder sugar on top of the pastries.

Rabbi Arie Levin, a father of 11 who usually works in Tel Aviv, gathered the group around the table holding the doughnuts and a menorah. There’s a lot of darkness, he said, then pointed at the menorah, and here’s a little light. He lit a candle.

It was the third time he had lit a menorah that night. He had already done candles with another group of soldiers on the other side of the base and with a group of people who were living in a Tel Aviv hotel, displaced from their homes in the north and the south of Israel. Soon, he would leave the army base to travel back home and join the families of hostages for another candle lighting at a synagogue.

When the menorah was lit in Ramla, the soldiers danced to a traditional Hanukkah song. In Tel Aviv, the air was still when the candles were aflame. Almost immediately, a voice in the back of the crowd started the chant that has echoed in this square for more than 60 days.

“Now, now, now, now,” the people said.