Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam, shehecheyanu, v’kiy’manu, v’higianu laz’man hazeh. Blessed are You Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe who has given us life, sustained us, and allowed us to reach this day.
In the Jewish tradition, it’s customary to recite this prayer, the shehecheyanu, on the first night of any celebration or important milestone. It reminds us to appreciate life, new beginnings, and the world around us.
Chanukah, by biblical standards, isn’t the most important holiday on the Jewish calendar. That would be, of course, Shabbat, followed by the High Holy Days, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. But Chanukah is a holiday so deeply rich in symbolism and hope that it shouldn’t be overlooked; it should be regaled!
For the last 22 years of my life, my family had a very well-established Chanukah routine. One of the eight nights, we would get the entire family together at my Bubbie’s house to spin the dreidel, open presents, and eat enough latkes to sustain our bodies for months. It was a tradition I thought would never end.
This year, that tradition ended.
This year, a new tradition begins.
I was apprehensive about traveling to Dapaong, the Savanes Region’s capital city, to celebrate Christmas and Chanukah with other volunteers.
Logistically, traveling anywhere in this country is as enjoyable as, say, waiting at the DMV on your birthday or maybe having your pants fall down on stage in front of hundreds of people. Both of those things have happened to me.
And personally, I was just nervous. Chanukah, especially this Chanukah, brings with it many emotions, both positive and negative. I didn’t want to burden my friends or have to match everyone else’s mood if I was sad.
My fears were completely allayed. (okay, not completely. Our bus to Dapaong was 3.5 hours late. But there was only one person to a seat! That is a luxury here.)
My friends unsurprisingly were completely there for me. This country finds new ways every day to make me feel loved and valued.
Over the Christmukah weekend, we attended an amazing party hosted by one of the Associate Peace Corps Directors! There was so much delicious Togolese food, great conversation, and the chance to catch up with friends from across the country. We also went to a fancy dinner, spent an afternoon at the pool, and shopped at my favorite grocery store on earth, The Nigerian Store!
But the best part of my weekend was what happened last night. Sam, Leah, and I wanted to light candles together to celebrate Chanukah. After a quick search, we found matches. Unfortunately, our hotel didn’t have a single menorah for us to borrow. (Fun Jewish trivia: for Chanukah, the candle holder is actually called a Chanukkiah! The more you know 🌈)
Without a candle holder, we did what any responsible adults would do: tried to use a plastic bag and a stale loaf of bread. When that infallible plan somehow failed us, we held the candles ourselves and deigned new-to-Chanukah Patty our “shamash,” the candle that lights all other candles.
After lighting the candles, we sat together and talked about our favorite Chanukah memories. What I shared: My Bubbie used to always tell us to show up at 5pm to help cook for dinner at 6. My dad would conveniently arrive a few minutes before 6 so he could eat without having to help prepare. When he walked in, my Bubbie would shout, “You’re here! We waited for you to start preparing!”
I like to think that wherever my dad and bubbie are, they are celebrating Chanukah together.
Leah and Sam both had great Chanukah stories, too. Patty both listened intently to our retellings of the Chanukah story and also shared her experiences as a minster’s daughter.
There is nothing more affirming than being heard. There is nothing more important than feeling appreciated. There is nothing more comforting than hearing and telling stories that make you feel at home, no matter where you are.
I say this with utmost certainty: no one deserves friends like the three women with whom I lit candles. I certainly don’t. This country and this world are better places because of people like them.
After a great weekend, we all headed back to our villages today, either in an overcrowded car or an overcrowded bus.
In a few days, we’ll all be back to work at the health clinics, schools, farms, and NGO’s. With the help of our Togolese counterparts and friends, we’re going to spend the next 20 months changing behaviors and transforming lives.
Nes Gadol Haya Po. A great miracle happened here.