I’m standing in a vaguely dirty room, by the take-a-book-leave-a-book shelves. The smell of dust, sweat, and fried dough tickle my nostrils. The room, which is sort of lit by stubborn yellow bulbs, is lined with overstuffed couches. These are littered with scarves, backpacks, dirty clothes, books, maps. The miscellaneous stuff of backpackers. This place is meant to be an oasis for weary pilgrims, a place to gather and replenish strength. And to do some laundry.
In one corner, two ancient folding tables are adorned with tablecloths, golden coins, trays of donuts. And candelabras, of course, chanukiyot, lots of them in a mishmash of sizes and shapes. All carefully prepared with two candles. One for the first night of Hanukkah and a shamash candle that will transfer the flame from light to light.
I’m standing with my companions in an awkward line while our hosts – an exuberant Rabbi and his wife who run the Chabad House in New Delhi – grin and exclaim, “You’re right on time! We’re about to light candles, and we still have sufganiyot!” Now here we are, adding to the sense of chaos and divine purpose.
There are six of us. Christopher is a soft-spoken Reiki master, Aliza is a kind musician with laughing eyes, Zach is a boisterous activist with a huge grin, Caely-Jo is a bubbly actress and singer with a thick South African accent. I’m an Israeli ex-soldier-turned-peace-activist. We had all met at a conference some 1,500 kilometers east of here and have been traveling more or less together for a few weeks.
Off to the back and slightly behind us is a friend we’d met on the way – a quiet, self-effacing Vishnuvite monk whose name I can no longer recall. He’s being curious and respectful, asking questions about the candles, accepting a chocolate coin with a half-smile.
This trip was not in my plan. It’s a cliché for Israelis to head to India after their military service, and it was true that I had finished up my mandatory two years in the IDF the year before. But this was some kind of accident, or maybe providence. Depending on how you look at it.
After I was discharged, I rapidly plowed through a heap of jobs. At one point, working for a teeny dialogue organization in Jerusalem, I had applied for a scholarship to attend this conference, not ever dreaming I’d get it. I almost forgot that I’d applied. But there was the email in my inbox, 6 months later. So I quit my most recent part-time nightmare – a horrifying experiment in misogyny under the guise of waitressing – and got on a plane to India. I arrived with my tip cash in my pocket with no plan, no return ticket and an out-of-date Lonely Planet guide in my backpack.
A month or so later, this candle-lighting ritual is the strange culmination of a haphazard tour of holy cities. I’d begun mine in Jerusalem, then met the others in Mayapur, in the Indian state of West Bengal. My companions and I had spent two weeks at an ashram there (our friend the monk lived in the ashram full time), at a conference for Young Leaders of the United Religions Initiative, where we and other young folks from across the globe talked about how to make peace in our time and attended workshops on nonviolent communication. Christopher led a session on Reiki practice. Aliza and I were roomies – we stayed up all night talking and playing Joni Mitchell tunes on her guitar. Besides a few uncomfortable moments at an Israeli-Palestinian panel discussion, our time at the ashram was actually quite peaceful, all sweet coconut water and walking meditations. We were pretty sure we had everything solved.
Afterward, Chris, Aliza, and I said our goodbyes to the others, promising to meet up again on the road, and headed across the country. The next fortnight was a very slow-moving whirlwind.
We stayed a few days in Santiniketan, with a Baul master. Essentially, Bauls are vessels for the musical traditions of the region, an oral tradition that is passed down from master to student or from father to son. We played music together, visited local temples to the goddess Kali, traveled to far off villages to visit other Bauls. They spoke no English, and we spoke no Bangla, yet somehow we managed.
Next was Bodh Gaya, where we meditated beneath the Bodhi tree where the Buddha is said to have received his enlightenment. In the Mahabodhi temple, around the tree, everyone is barefoot and silent unless they’re singing mantras. I had walked to each of the seven places where the Buddha had considered his life and experience in slow measured steps, considering my own place. One night, a voice came into my head as I walked toward the tree. It was not my voice, and I still can’t explain it. It said, “Be mindful of the steps you take on this earth.” I sat down and cried.
We traveled to Varanasi, where we practiced yoga on the roof of our hostel and I got violently ill, hallucinating tigers and vomiting day and night. So sick that the woman who ran the hostel called a boy who ran to get a local Ayurvedic practitioner who hurried over with oils and herbs. All I remember is a cloud of lavender and her warm, confident hands on me. I was limp. The next day, I sat up and ate, and even took a walk to sit by the banks of the Ganges.
Then we took a 17-hour train ride to New Delhi, where we met back up with Caely-Jo and Zach. It was there that our friend the monk resurfaced as well. I never learned how he found us in a city of 16 million people, but there he was. We spent our last few days in a euphoric soup of random outings – the day before Hanukkah we’d spent the morning in a cloud of weed smoke before going to look at Faberge eggs on display at the National Museum of India.
Which brings us to tonight. Our last night together, maybe forever.
Since most of us were Jewish, and it was Hanukkah, we’d decided to mark the occasion by lighting the first candle together. Every Israeli traveler knows that the Chabad house is where you go for religion on your travels, so we headed through back alleys and winding streets looking for the chanukiyah in their window.
So here I stand, on the edge of my return to Israel, to my family, to my previous self. I’m staring at the myriad chanukiyot, glinting in the half-light, the smell of oil and powdered sugar and sweet jelly of the sufganiyot tickling my nostrils, and wondering how exactly the fragments of me fit together.
I can’t figure out the connection between the me that defiantly quit my job and got on a plane one month ago, the me that wore that IDF uniform, and the me that’s standing here in the yellow half-light.
I surface and hear our friend the monk speak up, asking the Rabbi, “So what actually is the story of this holiday?” I look at the two men, and hitch up my greasy jeans, that won’t stay up anymore. I lost so much weight when I was sick in Varanasi. In a few days, I would be at my parents’ home in Jerusalem where I would sleep for 23 hours straight, long enough for my parents to consider taking me to the emergency room. But now I’m looking expectantly at the Rabbi and smiling, knowing that we share this holiday, this story.
“I’m so glad you asked!” the Rabbi says energetically, “It’s an amazing story, about courage and belief, about how a few fighters overcame the whole Greek army.” He rattles off the tale of the Maccabees – every detail, from Judah’s true faith to the part where Simon gets stepped on by an elephant, on to the flame being rekindled in the temple and lasting, of course, for eight nights against all odds.
“It also had to do with the fact that the Maccabees were a guerilla army who knew the terrain and the Greeks had been badly trained, don’t you think?” I pipe up, offering the less spiritual version I was taught at my secular school.
“No, no.” the Rabbi shakes his head, “I mean, I’m sure that helped, but they won because they believed. That’s the lesson. Victory, even miracles, comes to those who believe.”
“Well that’s not exactly how I learned it,” I say, ready to take him on. But my voice trails off because I see our friend the monk turning his head back and forth to look at us both. This quiet man is troubled by the tension we’re conjuring, especially right before a moment of holiness and blessing. It’s true that we make moments holy by our intention and presence. Maybe they did win because they believed. Maybe it’s not always good to be such a skeptic. Maybe the gathering of our collective energy and belief is the point. I think, let’s kindle a flame together.
Smiling at the Rabbi, I say, “You know what, you’re probably right. Both versions are probably right.” His wife grins and hands me a lit shamash. We light the candles and the bright, flickering light fills the dirty room. We sing the blessings together, eat donuts until our noses are covered in sweet sugar dust and sticky jelly. When we leave, the room is much, much brighter.