I’ve now celebrated 23 Chanukahs (about 19 of which I can remember). Somehow, over the course of each year, I forget how much I love the holiday.  But then there it is, every year, like an old friend, jumping back into my life just as the snow starts to fall.

Some of my Christian friends here were having a tough time this holiday season.  It’s tough to be away from your family on a day that you generally spend with them doing whatever it is people do on Christmas.  I guess I feel fortunate in that aspect.  While Judaism is big on holidays, I’ve always found it to be more of a community-oriented religion than a family-oriented one (go ahead, kick my tush now, Talmudic scholars.  Prove me wrong or something.).  So in that aspect, things have always seemed to work out for me.  Recap of the last few Chanukahs:

2003: Was at USY’s International Convention in Toronto.  Don’t remember a whole lot about the week, but I was surrounded by 1000 other Jewish teenagers.  How’s that for community?

2004: First Chanukah in college, and it happened just before finals week kicked off.  I remember going to my friend Dave’s apartment, helping him finish dinner and then lighting the candles and sitting down to eat with everyone.  When we gathered around the menorah and lit the candles that night, I realized that I wanted that experience every year, that feeling of community.  Still fairly new to College Park, I didn’t really know most of the people I was with that night, but in that instant I felt a connection with them all.

2005: One of the best Chanukahs to date.  The first night of Chanukah coincided with my winter break trip to Israel with the Avi Chai Fellowship (coincidence, all three of my senior year roommates have since been a part of the fellowship.  Coincidence?  I think not.  I think I am a trendsetter.).  It also coincided with our flight.  That’s fine–leave it to Rabbi Hirsh to light a menorah in the El Al terminal, which is probably the second-worst place to light anything (lighting something on an actual El Al plane tops the list).  Seeing as how it was Chanukah and everyone in the boarding area was headed to Israel, dozens of people crowded around us to sing the blessings.  It was a truly fantastic experience.  At least until security came running down the hallway and we had to extinguish the flame.

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2006: Went by in a flash.  I was in Prague for the first few days and home for the end of it.  My only memory is drinking too much complimentary wine on my Lufthansa flight home and trading seats with an Orthodox man because I thought he wanted to pray.  Turns out he just wanted to sleep.  Lesson learned that year: Limit yourself to two glasses on wine on a plane.

2007: Back in Maryland for Chanukah.  This was one of my favorites.  It was the first time I had roommates who fit two criteria: Jewish and not creepy (not weird is another story…).  We would wait for everyone to come home at night to light the menorah in our living room together.  Two memorable events from that Chanukah: lighting the big Chabad menorah in Hornbake Mall on the first night and breaking a world record for dreidel spinning (I wrote a great feature on the event for a class I took that semester.  Still have a copy, in case anyone wants to read it and give me feedback–unlike my instructor.  Not bitter, I swear.). Here’s the only shot of me from the Hornbake lighting:

Rach, Michele and I with SGA President Andrew Friedson, who lit the menorah.  I wonder what's going to happen when the SGA doesn't have a Jewish president.  Well, we won't be finding out this year!

Rach, Michele and I with SGA President Andrew Friedson, who lit the menorah. I wonder what's going to happen when the SGA doesn't have a Jewish president. Well, we won't be finding out this year! Or next year, or the year after that...

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And all that excessive lead-up brings us to 2008.  I was lucky enough to come to Seoul at a very good time for the Jewish community here.  Rabbi and Rebbetzin Litzman are fairly new arrivals to Seoul and have done an incredible job connecting the Jewish residents of and visitors to Korea.  After hours of hard work, some of the toughest, strongest of us (myself obviously not included) constructed a gigantic menorah.  On the first night, we all gathered outside a hotel in Itaewon to light it.  I got some good shots of the lighting and a video of the crowd stumbling through “Maoz Tzur.”

Dozens of people showed up to the candle lighting and crowded the sidewalks on that frigid Sunday night.  I only knew a few people, but I had the same feeling that came four years earlier, in that apartment in College Park–a wonderful sense of community among strangers.

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After the lighting and some latke-eating, I went to a Bulgarian restaurant with some people I met at the Chanukah lighting before catching the last train home.

Did the festivities last one night?  Oh no, just like the oil in the ruined temple, they lasted for eight nights.  Inspired by the rebbetzin’s homemade latkes, I bought a ton of potatoes and onions from a street stall in the neighborhood and fried up dozens myself.  I’m a from-the-box girl, that is, I rely heavily on prepackaged anything to get me through life.  Up until this year, I had always made latkes from a box mix, and they never attained that “from scratch” taste we all strive for.  This year, after hours spent grating potatoes (and unfortunately, my knuckles) and narrowly avoiding creating a giant grease fire, I achieved culinary success.  I served up latkes to some of my coworkers, most of whom had never eaten them before.  OHHHH and it should be said that I made applesauce from scratch as well.  Eight hours + crock pot + fresh apples from the fruit vendor down the street=I’m really, truly awesome.

Cue the Debbie Friedman music...now!

Cue the Debbie Friedman music...now!

The latkes and applesauce were a great hit, and I think I’ll make this an annual tradition.  I have no idea where I’ll be next Chanukah, but I do know that there will be latkes and applesauce (and, geographically permitting, sour cream).

Candle-lighting and latkes.  That’s it, right?  That’s what you do on Chanukah, yeah?  Well, this was one of those glorious years where Chanukah and Christmas bump chests.  And the bosses here were hell-bent on not paying anyone overtime, so I had Christmas off.  I’m going to be completely honest, I was a little disappointed.  For years, I’ve eagerly awaited the Christmas where I would be scheduled to work.  This year, like all the others, was just not my year.  Some Christmases I’ve been in Israel or with Jewish friends, so it hasn’t been a problem, but others have totally sucked.  Have you got any idea what it’s like to be one of the few Jews in a place where virtually everyone celebrates Christmas?  It’s horrible and I have nobody to play with (Cue South Park’s “It’s Hard to Be a Jew on Christmas”).  This year, I got the word out to all the Jews in Korea (I’m not joking, there’s a Facebook group and everything) and ended up back in Itaewon, enjoying a fantastic Christmas lunch at Ho Lee Chow, a Chinese chain around Korea.

I know, I know.  Food pictures are supposed to be taken BEFORE a meal is eaten.  I forgot.  Plus, I was starving.

I know, I know. Food pictures are supposed to be taken BEFORE a meal is eaten. I forgot. Plus, I was starving.

After lunch, we attempted to see a movie, but the theaters were packed.  Apparently, Koreans don’t really celebrate Christmas.  No idea why the theaters were so busy, though.  That part was bizarre.  Highlight: our cab driver, Mr. Kim:

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Post-moviegoing attempt, we headed back to Itaewon for an evening full of good drinks and good friends.

The next night was Shabbat.  As soon as I got out of work, I hightailed it over to Itaewon again.  For the first time since coming here, I didn’t get lost when looking for something and made it to the rabbi’s house just as services were concluding.  It was a small, intimate group of seven, nothing like the 100+ people I’m used to seeing at UMD’s Chabad House, but it was wonderful.  I ate amazing food and played with a cute baby, and few things are better than that!

Last Sunday was the final night of Chanukah.  I watched a movie with some friends and didn’t get back until past midnight.  When I got home, I lit the menorah (even though you’re only supposed to do it if you can display it in a place for others to see), turned off my lights and curled up in bed, watching the candles melt down.  It was the perfect ending to a crazy, hectic week.

I’ve celebrated Chanukah all over the world, but 2008 might take the cake.  I spent the week with people from all over the world, who just happened to find themselves in Seoul for the holiday.  What truly amazes me about this religion is that you can take a Jew from Jerusalem, a Jew from Buenos Aires, a Jew from Moscow and a Jew from New York, stick them in front of a menorah, and they’ll all start singing “Rock of Ages” to the same tune.  It’s hard to feel a part of any community here, in a place where I am so clearly an outsider.  But the Jewish community here is made up of wonderful people who I am looking forward to getting to know much better.

This is the part of the blog where I’m supposed to say something cute and kitschy about a Chanukah miracle.  Truth be told, it’s 3 a.m. and I don’t really have it in me.  I guess there are a few miracles this year.  One: I didn’t burn down my building making latkes.  Two: The giant menorah in Itaewon didn’t get vandalized.  Three: I met some incredible people this Chanukah, people who proved to me that Seoul really, truly has soul (aw, corny, I know).

I didn’t set a world record this year, or almost get busted by security at JFK, but this Chanukah was exciting in its own right.  As we say at this time every year, “nes gadol haya sham”–“a great miracle happened there.”  I think that a great miracle has happened here in Seoul, and I look forward to watching the Jewish community here grow and strengthen over the next nine months.

Chanukah chag yafeh

Chanukah chag yafeh

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