“He Who has a Heart Thirsting for the Light… Come Join Us:” Chanukah and the Zionists


We carry torches, on dark nights,
The paths glow beneath our feet,
And he who has a heart thirsting for the light
will raise his eyes to us –
To the light – and come join!
No miracle happened to us, we found no vial of oil.
We walked in the valley, we ascended the mountain,
We discovered the hidden springs of light.
No miracle happened to us, we found no vial of oil.
We hewed stone until we bled – and there was light (“We Carry Torches,” lyrics A. Ze’ev, music M. Zeira, mid-1920s (date unknown)).

The great strength of any national movement, Zionism included, is founded on its social justification and is based to a large extent upon foundations built in the past ( Shmuel Almog, “The Historical Dimension of Jewish Nationalism,”Zion, 53, 4 (1986), pp.405-421). Zionism chose to establish itself upon fundamentals that were familiar to its supporters and with which they identified; the same principles would also be respected by the free world.  On this basis did the Zionist leaders present themselves and their movement, taking care to differentiate Zionists from “the others.”  ( Ibid., p. 417).

Within various national contexts, the creation of a new national tradition was the driving force behind new cultural expressions ( In the Zionist context see Yaakov Shavit, “Creation of Holidays and Ceremonies in the Israeli Yishuv,” Y. Dahan, H. Wasserman, eds., Inventing a Nation: An Anthology, Ra’anana 2006, pp. 338-350). These included elements of songs, parades, and the like (Oren Yefathal, Batya Roded, A. Ben-Amos, D. Bar-Tal, eds.,Patriotism: We Love You, Homeland, Kibbutz Hameuhad 2004, p. 246). Patriotic songs and popular parades were means to spread the message and the values upheld by those molding the national consciousness and their agents (For example, Arik Hobesbaum, “Mass-Produced Traditions: Europe 1870-1914,” Y. Dahan, H. Wasserman, eds., Inventing a Nation: An Anthology, Ra’anana 2006, pp. 85-124. (in English)). The songs were sung in a national public area and featured recurring motifs that expressed a love of the Land and the willingness to sacrifice for its sake. Thus the songs were meant to instill a feeling of brotherhood and pride in the members of the nation.

The song above is no exception. “We Carry Torches” was sung at Hanukah celebrations in the Yishuv society (this refers to the Jewish community in the Land of Israel from the late 19th century until the founding of the State), and it combines both traditional and new elements.  The former were culled from memories nurtured by Jewish tradition; the latter were a product of contemporary European influences: the Enlightenment, the Romantic Movement, and others. The motif of light demonstrates the mix of old and new. Light signifies progress and enlightenment, associated with the Emancipation; but interwoven in the song is also the Divine light that brightened the lives of religious believers (As in the poem by Rabbi Kook, “Bring Light, Bring Holiness,” quoted in Zvi Yaron, The Teaching of Rabbi Kook, Jerusalem 1993, p. 321). In contrast, the miracle of the vial of oil retains its traditional character.

“We Carry Torches” is the song of the pioneers building the Land of Israel. They bring with them the light to the Zionist settlement, in the valley and on the hilltop.  To their mind, the redemption – that is, the light shining on those who follow the Zionist path – is not concealed in supernatural miracles. In contrast to the Biblical Moses who struck the rock, wondrously releasing the flow of water, the hidden light revealed by Zionism was brought forth by the physical labor of the pioneers who “hewed stone until we bled.” No wonder, then, that the light -whether from a flaming torch or from neon lamps – was the dominant motif adorning Zionist celebrations, from Hanukah through to Purim (On the Purim light motif see Bat-Sheva Margalit Stern, “Nadra’s Exquisite Splendid Profile: Beauty Contests in the Zionist Land of Israel as a Means of Forming National Consciousness,” to be published in Israel: Studies in Zionism And The State of Israel History, Society, Culture  Dec. 2011).

Traces of the past were visible in popular ceremonies that were prevalent during the formation of national policy from the 19thcentury onwards (See Anthony Smith, Chosen Peoples: Hallowed Sources of National Identity (Hebrew ed. by Aya Breuer), Jerusalem 2011, p. 278. (in English)). Songs and parades were incorporated into Yishuv celebrations and ceremonies, with the purpose of strengthening the bond between the people and the Land; they contributed to the creation of a homeland, with its ancient and modern landscapes, and became the building blocks of national rituals. Hanukah, influenced by these elements, became the most significant Jewish holiday for the Zionist Movement (Moti Zeira, We Are Torn: The Bond Between the 1920s Settlement of the Land and Jewish Culture, Jerusalem 2002, p. 226).

Unlike other holidays, Hanukah was easily incorporated into the Zionist narrative for several reasons: the story of the Maccabees is told in Apocryphal sources external to the Jewish Canon. This made it easier for Jewish scholars of the Enlightenment period to focus on the historical aspect, using the Maccabees as a model for the enlightened Jews who aspired to integrate into their native countries (For example, “The Wisdom of Israel” and the works of Heinrich Graetz and Simon Dubnow. Shmuel Almog, “The Historical Dimension of Jewish Nationalism,” Zion, 53, 4 (1986), pp.405-421; Zeira, We Are Torn, p. 226). Similar to other Zionist holidays, such as Tu B’shvat, Hanukah was less fraught with Jewish laws and Halakhic mitzvot, and their incorporation into Zionist ceremonies was less controversial.  This was not the case with Purim, for instance, where several of the new elements elicited an outcry among observant Jews (This was the case with the Purim Beauty Contest held in Tel Aviv in the 1920s. Bat-Sheva Margalit Stern, “Who’s the Fairest of them All? Women, Womanhood, and Ethnicity in Zionist Land of Israel”, Nashim, 11 (2006), pp. 147-150. (in English)). Because the ideas associated with Hanukah coincided with those of Zionism, Zionists of all streams were able to find something in the holiday consistent with their worldview, whether it was the struggle against assimilation, the fight for independence, or the idealization of heroism and sacrifice – all these underscored the activist image of the new Jew, as contrasted with the diaspora passiveness that characterized any Jew not forged in the new nationalism (See Anita Shapira, New Jews, Old Jews, Tel Aviv 1997, pp. 155-174).

In addition to choosing sources from past tradition, Zionism needed to form a society in which the new national elements were embedded. These elements molded the sensibilities, the “habitus,” of the individual member of the nation (The term “habitus” is used by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu to denote the sum of behavior patterns that dictate the organization of life. See Zohar Shavit, “The Habitus of the New Jew of the Enlightenment,”  Israel, 16 (2009), pp. 11-12). This included mode of dress as well as design of the home, cultural tastes and more. Thus, the behavior of the new Jew took on additional expressions in the transition from exile to homeland, inspired by local and national experience. He acquired, for example, a patriotic sense, complete with obligations, customs, heroes and symbols (For example, Dan Orian, “Patriotism in Israeli Theatre,” A. Ben-Amos, Daniel Bar-Tal, eds., Patriotism, pp. 217-218). From the Zionists’ viewpoint these things were very important in dealing with a Jewish society consisting of a collection of emigrants. The Zionist leaders cultivated the bond to their new home in a deliberate and consistent fashion. Educators used various means – such as Hanukah celebrations – to foster a sense of belonging amongst pupils and their families to the place and the society in which they lived (On the contribution of the educational system to the creation of tradition see Shavit, “Creation of Holidays and Ceremonies in the Israeli Yishuv,” Y. Dahan, H. Wasserman, eds., To Invent a Nation, Ra’anana 2006, pp. 345-350).

The process of establishing a cultural center, which occurred mainly in the 1930s and 40s, was accompanied by a politicization of the arts. The attempt to create a local “Land of Israel” culture with its own unique repertoire was a struggle that revolved around the nature of this culture and control over it (Zohar Shavit, “The Major Stages in the Development of the Center in the Land of Israel as a Hegemony,” Z. Shavit, ed., Building a Hebrew Culture in the Land of Israel, Jerusalem 1999, pp. 87-92). The heart of this struggle was in Tel Aviv. The first and only Hebrew city was home to most of the new immigrants, especially from 1930 onwards. In 1936 there were 145,000 residents in the city, about 78% of them European Jews; by 1944 the population had grown to 190,000 ( Based on Zionist sources. See Shavit, Biger, From a City-State to a City in the State, p. 21). The metropolis served as a magnet that drew Jewish and non-Jewish visitors, residents of nearby towns, and the entire Yishuv, and so the community leaders of Tel Aviv took pains to cultivate their city. Great efforts were exerted to create a unique, local Zionist culture (Anat Helman, Surrounded by Light and Sea: Tel Aviv Culture in the Mandate Period, Haifa 2007, pp. 67-68; Yaakov Shavit and Gideon Biger, From a City-State to a City in the State: History of Tel Aviv (1936-1952), Tel Aviv 2007, pp. 15-21).

Indeed, Tel Aviv featured an expansive cultural scene (Shavit, Biger, From a City-State to a City in the State, pp. 235-275). Because of its centrality, an examination of the nature of Hanukah celebrations held there can shed light on our discussion. As with other holidays, Hanukah was publicly celebrated. The Hanukah ceremonies that gradually dominated the municipal public sphere dispensed with the traditional religious aspects of the holiday, corresponding to the increasing secularism that dominated the scene in Tel Aviv and throughout the entire Yishuv (Anat Helman, “Torah, Worship and Coffeehouses: Public Religion in Mandatory Tel Aviv,” Cathedra 105 (2002), pp.85-110; the fact that in the 1930s-40s there was only one religious city council member (David Zvi Pinkas), representing 6-7% of the city population, reflects this balance of power.  Shavit, Biger, From a City-State to a City in the State, p. 276). Among the most conspicuous ceremonial elements were parades: theAdloyada on Purim, tree-planters on Tu B’shvat, and torch-bearers on Hanukah.

The torch processions were not a Zionist invention, but they did reflect the times. Like the songs, they conveyed to both participants and spectators the ideas that the Zionist hegemony strived to instill, first and foremost the importance of the nation and building the Land. The flames from the torches carried by the marchers lit up the sky, inspiring great excitement and leaving a strong imprint on the spectators:

I remember from my high school years the torch procession on Hanukah eve. We exited the school on Geula Street in orderly lines, carrying torches and marching towards the water tower…at the top of the tower a huge Hanukiah was lit. When we marched along Allenby Street I saw my father watching me, as if to say: Blessed…… who has kept us alive, and sustained us, and enabled us to reach this moment, to see my eldest daughter marching with the Jewish youth in the Land of Israel, in the city of Tel Aviv. It seemed as if all who looked upon us felt the same way.

Such was the testimony of a high school girl who marched with her class in the Hanukah torch procession in Tel Aviv in the 1930s (For example, the memoirs of Hana Aryun of Tel Aviv in the 1930s. Hana Aryun, The Imprint of a Nation in the Making, Jerusalem 2010, p. 85. Courtesy of my colleague, Anat Navot). Another perspective, highlighting the difference between the holiday customs in Land of Israel and those in the Diaspora, was given by a new immigrant who had arrived in the mid-1920s:

On the Festival of Lights, in the galut, we lit candles…and we saw… candles – usually on the windowsill. But the Holiday of Lights here in Israel…I arrived on the holiday, in December, on the Festival of Lights! This is truly the holiday of the Maccabees…You could feel it in the street, there were torches, yes, torches. The children, their songs, well, it was all new for me, I had never seen anything like it in Poland ( Memoirs of Moshe Horgal, who made aliya in the mid-1920s. Quoted in Aryeh-Sapir, “The Procession of Light: Hanukah as a National Holiday in Tel Aviv 1909-36, Cathedra 103 (Spring 2002), p. 148).

In view of the feelings expressed here, the architects of the celebrations could allow themselves a sense of satisfaction that the Zionist message had been implanted.

Yet, these exuberant descriptions inform us of what was absent, no less than what was present, at these events. Where were the Zionist women? The recollections above clearly indicate that girls and young women took part in school processions and sang in choirs; women certainly were among the spectators; mothers prepared their children for the celebrations. Then why were they absent from all substantive representation of the holiday? The glaring exception that proves the rule is the story of Hana and her seven sons (This appears in a number of sources, including the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Gitin 57b. Also, in 1926 the story was portrayed in a children’s play).

The specific inclusion of this story was not accidental. The Zionist Movement, like other national movements, assigned a practical role to women: the mother of the nation who gives birth to the nation’s children; and a symbolic role: to embody the nation. As a national symbol the woman was responsible for ensuring the continuation and perpetuity of the nation (George L. Mosse, Nationalism and Sexuality in Modern Europe, Hebrew edition, Jerusalem 2008, p. 36). This “figurative burden,” in the words of Nira Yuval-Davis, researcher of gender and nationalism, helped establish the woman in the traditional roles of wife and mother, virtually limiting her sphere of activity to private life (Nira Yuval-Davis, Nation and Gender, SAGE 1997, pp. 4, 21-27. (in English)).

Yemima Chernovitz Avidar (1909-1998), a kindergarten teacher and adminstrator in Tel Aviv in the mid-1920s and early 1930s, testified to this approach. According to her, educators strived to create a special atmosphere: “Hanukah celebrations were given an heroic aspect…with plays about Judah the Maccabee and Hana and her seven sons,” she recounted (Quoted in Aryeh-Sapir, “The Procession of Light: Hanukah as a National Holiday in Tel Aviv 1909-36, Cathedra 103 (Spring 2002), p. 136). These carefully selected plays tied the Maccabee warriors, fighting for the nation, to Hana, the mother who chose to sacrifice, for the nation’s sake, what was most dear to her. Thus a parallel was drawn between the mother’s sacrifice and the heroism of the soldiers. The Zionists found it convenient not to undermine the widely accepted notion of the woman’s place in society and her national and symbolic roles. If a woman needed to make an appearance in the public sphere, she would be permitted to do so primarily in her role as the mother of sons (For example, Zoza Bruner, “A Mother’s Voice, or: Dialectics of Self Awareness,” Zmanim 46-47 (1993), pp. 4-17).

Thus did Zionism reinforce the link between nationalism and masculinity, by limiting women to a narrowly defined sphere. The Zionist women’s stubborn fight to alter this status, to break out of their confined zone, and to gain recognition as equal partners in all areas of the national project, did not find expression in the Zionist interpretation of Hanukah. The symbols of the holiday included only one feminine representation: the heroic bereft mother. In this way were women admitted into the pantheon of national heroes, granting them eternal fame (Smith, Chosen Peoples, pp. 266-271; Idit Zartel, The Nation and Death: History, Memory, Politics, Or Yehuda 2002, pp. 25-30; Hana Neve, “The Israeli Experience and the Experience of the Female Israeli – The Military Cemetery, or: Where is Shula Melet?” Y. Atzmon ed., Will you hear my voice? Portrayals of Women in Israeli Culture, Jerusalem 2001, pp. 303-324). Apparently, as illustrated by the struggle of those women who turned towards the light and joined the Zionist movement, eradicating the Zionists’ gender bias would require much more than a Hanukah miracle.


Dr. Bat-Sheva Margalit Stern lectures in Gender Studies and Jewish History at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies

Photo by Edgar Hirschbain, KKL’s photos archive.

English translation by Penina Goldschmidt