Every Chanukah, groups of secular Israelis from all over the country gather to gape in awe at their ultra--Orthodox brethren who celebrate the wintertime festival in the picturesque Jerusalem neighborhood of Nachlaot.
Part of the commandment of the eight day festival is to publicize the miracle of the Jewish victory over the Hellenists. That means placing the lit Chanukiya outside one's house. In parts of Nachlaot, just behind Jerusalem's Machane Yehuda market, almost every home has a Chanukiya filled with oil (where did candles come from, anyway??) enclosed in a brass and glass holder burning brightly outside the door in the early evening hours.
While parts of the all-pedestrian neighborhood are being gentrified and populated by English-speaking newly religious families, large areas are still unchanged and home to a community of large poor ultra-Orthodox families and elderly Sephardic residents. In the tumble-down courtyards ringed by tiny apartments, children scamper about collecting Chanuka gelt from the tourists as their parents turn aside to avoid the camera flashlights.
One young, friendly American-born Ger Hasid invites us in to light the Chanukiya with his wife and six children. The kids hand out a booklet they've prepared in Hebrew explaining the Hareidi lifestyle to the outsiders. After about 10 minutes of careful grooming of the wicks for the oil, the Hasid starts to sing the blessings and invites everyone to join in. "The women should be careful not to sing any solos, or I'll get kicked out of the neighborhood," he laughs.
Back out in the courtyard the Chanukiyot in front of each doorway make it easy to see how many families are crammed into the small area. The darkness masks the primitive housing, but the light from the Chanukiyot in every nook and cranny creates a magical atmosphere.
A few hundred yards away on the Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall and along Jaffa Road strings of white shimmering lights hang over the roadway. In Zion Square a massive electric Chanukiya is already lit
A few stores up from the square on Jaffa Road, a young shoe-store owner pauses to light his Chanukiya with customers in the doorway of his store. A little light to dispel the darkness...