When I was growing up in America, Chanukah was always overshadowed by the non-Jewish holiday that occurs during the same season. There may have been a lot of Jews in New York, but in my elementary school there were hardly any, and I happened to be one of that tiny minority. This was most noticeable on Wednesday afternoons, when the majority of my class were excused to go off to religiousChanukah was always overshadowed instruction, leaving behind those of us who were unaffiliated or Jewish. There wasn’t much our teacher, Mrs. Schwartz, could do during those remaining afternoon hours with so few students, so usually we would draw or do our homework.

One time, she had the useful idea of assigning me the job of writing a short historical essay about the upcoming festival of Chanukah.

After dutifully fulfilling my responsibility and finishing this factual composition about the events we would be commemorating, I was then supposed to stand up in front of my classmates and publicly announce, by reading my little report, that I was not like everyone else—that I was Jewish, and this is what Jews celebrated while the rest of the class was busy with what seemed like a much more important event. I knew, for example, that the other three Jewish kids in my class all had decorated trees in their living rooms since their parents considered this a “cultural” American event and not connected enough to religion to warrant banning it.

Don’t think that I didn’t plead for the opportunity to participate in these festivities! (I didn’t want to be the only one to miss out.) But my parents refused to accommodate my need to fit in and be a normal American kid, and absolutely would not capitulate on this point. When I claimed that we could have a “Chanukah bush,” Mom told me that was ridiculous. I could call it whatever I wanted, but it was still not a Jewish thing and unacceptable in our home. My parents were not great believers in conformity, saying that Jews throughout the ages marched to a different drummer’s beat.

Maybe my teacher knew about my dilemma, my feelings of discomfort in being different . . . maybe she was Jewish, too, and she wanted to encourage me by giving me that assignment. I suppose this may have been her way of being supportive—by singling me out to be the sole representative of the faith and explain our religion to the uninitiated.

All I remember is that when the moment of truth came, I couldn’t stand up in front of my classmates to read what I’d written, and I passed this privilege on to Evelyn Silver. She didn’t mind reading it. After all, she had a tree in herliving room. She wasn’t that different. Outwardly, I looked like any other little girl, with ponytails and freckles, but inside, I hated that uncomfortable feeling of not quite fitting in with my surrounding society.

My parents couldn’t understand why the three other Jewish kids in my class would be involved in non-Jewish customs when Chanukah was good enough. But then I discovered that they even got eight gifts throughout the week, one for each day of our holiday. When I found this out and mentioned it to my mother, she said: “If we buy you kids so many presents, that will become more important to you than the meaning of Chanukah itself.”

I will confess that this answer stunned me into silence. I was impressed. My parents had values. They didn’t want their children to live an empty life of seeking material acquisition and possessions. They, on principle, wanted Chanukah to be joyous in and of itself. Latkes with applesauce, dreidels, chocolate coins, seeing cousins and one gift or Chanukah gelt (money) would suffice for their kids.

After that, I didn’t ask for “Chanukah bushes” and plentiful presents. Something inside me felt satisfied and happy. We really were different. I had uncovered incontrovertible evidence that my parents were indeed connected to some higher purpose in life. I seemed to have been searching for that deeper meaning since I was a small tot, standing in our front yard wondering why I was Jewish, why I was a girl, and why I was born in America and not in some distant war-torn country where children were suffering from poverty and starvation. Why, why, why?

Another memorable phenomenon of that same season was when the neighbors’ homes started sprouting round wreaths on their front doors. When we would drive over to Queens to visit my grandma and cousins, I would be on the lookout to find even one lone domicile that was devoid of this decoration.

If I spotted a plain door, I would enthusiastically shout, “JEWISH!” My father thought this annual outburst of mine was great; he would swing his head around, giving me an enormous grin, and repeat, “JEWISH!” I sensed from his pleased reaction that obviously, being Jewish was something special and important to him, too.

Then one year, when I was about 12, my father took my mother, baby sister and me on a trip to Israel to visit relatives—my grandma’s first cousins and all of their progeny. My brothers didn’t go; they were sent to different aunts and uncles. I was at a really impressionable age, and one thing I clearly recall from that memorable odyssey was our search for a menorah. It had to be just right: strong, solid, nearly unbreakable. No thin silver or glass for our rambunctious bunch!

I remember that we visited a lot of gift shops—not just to buy this special religious item, but to bring back souvenirs of the Holy Land for all our family. Finally, in the umpteenth store, we selected a large menorah worked in various pastel shades: green, pink, white, blue and beige. It was a heavy piece of thick, solid stone,We placed our new menorah in the middle of the mantelpiece and in my mind, the added weight symbolized a direct connection to Jewish history: Jews were made of tough material and would last forever.

Having returned with it to America, we placed our new menorah in the middle of the mantel above the fireplace in the living room. It stood there majestically, its eight arms curving boldly upward, awaiting the moment when it would light up our home with its historical message. Even with my composition back in fourth grade (based on information gleaned freely from the World Book Encyclopedia), and despite my parents’ sincere intentions that it should be the main focus of our celebration, I still wasn’t sure exactly what the meaning of Chanukah was. Was it the few conquering the mighty, or was it the miracle of the tiny flask of oil burning longer than was physically possible? Our menorah represented something real, but what was that reality? Nor did arguing with my siblings over whose turn it was to light the colorful candles enhance the aura of holiness to which I so much wanted to connect.

Our menorah came from the Land of Israel. Now I had images in my mind of a country far across the ocean—a place that had, strangely enough, seemed warm and familiar when I was there. That uncanny feeling of resonating with my environment, of being in sync with my surroundings, that I, too, was descended from ancient desert stock, that I actually resembled so many people that we met (relatives, of course, included) was a sensation I tucked away in my subconscious for safe-keeping.

Throughout the years that followed, those subtle pastel colors of solid stone continued to serve as a reminder that there was life beyond the borders of the secular society in which I was living.

Many more events occurred over the next decade before I was eventually able to set sail back to the Holy Land that had captured the heart of my childhood. I can only describe my return as one filled with awe and reverence as I walked the streets of Jerusalem at last, knowing that I wouldn’t leave until I’d had a chance to unravel all the unsolved mysteries that perplexed me.

It was the eighth night of Chanukah, and I stopped by to see a neighbor. She had 10 children and all of their menorahs—made as school projects—were arranged on top of folded, crinkly aluminum foil that covered the table. Each round metal bottle cap was glued to a wooden base and held a brightly colored candle. Ninety flickering lights—dancing shadows on the red, blue, yellow, orange, pink, green and white candles—illuminated the faces of her thrilled, excited children. The living room, with its arched, domed ceiling and massively thick, white-plaster walls, built more than 150 ago, was aglow with a historical presence of significance, as though the shimmering shadows wished to speak and tell a story.

Who among the Hellenist Jews was able to believe that a handful of determined Jews, with their stubborn faith in G‑d, would defeat the mighty Greek empire and outlast them by thousands of years? At the time, it must have seemed obvious that an informed choice, based solely on statistics, would lead one to side with theEverywhere you go, they are lit conquering Greek culture. A reasonable adult could intellectually conclude that the Jews were clearly outnumbered, the holy Temple was defiled, the Greeks had overtaken the ancient world, and our time as an “eternal” people was up. Who could cling to the persistent hope that the Jews would survive this onslaught, and go on to cleanse and rededicate the Holy Temple?

Contemplating those slender burning candles, I could hardly believe that I was here in Jerusalem, surrounded by Jews celebrating a Jewish holiday.

Witnessing the wonder of this inspirational radiance in the windows and on the streets of Jerusalem was quite a revelation. Walking past building entrances and peering into the sturdy, glass-paned metal boxes that contained small cups of brightly burning wicks floating in olive oil completely enveloped my neshama (soul) with warmth.

It was as though the child within me, who had always instinctively known there was something bigger and better about being Jewish than I was being led to believe, could now rejoice with full satisfaction that she had been personally redeemed. My first Chanukah in Jerusalem—winding through the city streets, exploring every neighborhood, seeking out the brilliance of the hundreds of lights glimmering in the darkness—was an unbelievable experience.

Everywhere you go, they are lit. Here, every individual’s radiant contribution is of great relevance to all the Jewish people. Every single person counts. Each Jew’s additional light has mighty significance. To all who see them, those flames proclaim: “We are here! We are here! We are here!” Eternal means forever.