Emma Shevah is a London-born writer who has spent the last twenty years travelling and moving country. She met her husband in India where their first child was born and they have since see-sawed between Jerusalem and North London. She is the only Orthodox Jew she knows of whose great great grandfather was not a Lithuanian Gaon or Cordovan Rabbi but the King of Thailand.
When the alarm wakes me at six fifteen, it's utterly black outside. It must be a mistake, I think. I must have set the alarm for the wrong time. But then I hear my eleven-year-old son getting up for school (he leaves the house the earliest, before light) and when he comes up to wash his face, he pushes the door of my room to see if I've woken up. The house is silent and dark. It doesn't seem right anyone should be up at this hour.
'Hey,' I whisper.
'It can't be time to get up. It looks like it's one o'clock in the morning.'
'It's pouring out there,' he groans.
'Let's stay sleeping,' I say conspiratorially. 'Let's hibernate until spring. Get in here and keep warm. Tell them to call us when the trees start budding.'
'Yeah, Mum,' he says, 'but I need to go to school.'
Someone, thank G-d, is sensible in our house.
It gets light at around seven thirty. I use the word 'light' in a vague and symbolic manner. It's dark all day because it's been raining for weeks, and then it gets darker still at half past three in the afternoon and stays that way until the next morning when I try to pretend I'm a bear but my children ignore me. Getting up when it's pitch black outside is surely unnatural unless you're waking up at midnight to go to a party.
Everything looks uglier when the sky is grey, and London is no exception. Parts of London are exceedingly ugly even when the sun shines but all is forgiven if and when that rare event occurs. Luckily for me, I don't really care about the weather - I love rain. I adore clouds and storms; I don't mind cars like ice-boxes; I hate the bitter wind but not enough to let it get me down because there are lots of interesting indoor places in which to sit to read or write, and if you're busy you don't have time to notice. But still. It gets to this time of year and I look at the photo on the wallpaper of my cell phone - a photo of my boys with their cousins on the beach in Michmoret - the sky is cobalt blue, the sand is warm, the sea is green and inviting, the boys are running with shorts on, and I miss Israel.
I know it's not like that in Israel now, not every day anyway. It's winter and term-time, and there's no spare day to go to the beach if you keep Shabbat - in the Chanuka holidays maybe. But logic doesn't count at times like this. Reason doesn't like to interfere with the pangs of nostalgia. Jerusalem is always beautiful, even when the sky is grey, and there are days in winter where you can sit in the park or outside a cafe with sun on your face, wearing something thin, wondering where you put your sunglasses and if you were too hasty taking them out of your handbag after Sukkot.
Here in England we now face four to six months of dark, cold, rain, wind and greyness. Euw. Such a good job I don't care about the weather. Much.
The festival of lights is approaching so I was reading about Chanuka and the Greeks, and in this article by Rabbi Naftali Hoff, he suggests that what we are celebrating in this holiday is not merely a war battle (because we've suffered many of those) but a battle against the beliefs of the Greeks, which diametrically opposed those of the Jews. The Greeks were polytheistic; they deified man, giving their gods human forms and characteristics as they considered man the ultimate being; they believed that knowledge of good came through the intellect and that virtue stemmed from this (whereas to Jews these come through the Torah). Unlike Jews, they didn't hold that there was a strong correlation between a person's behaviour and his/her relationship G-d, or that one's actions determined anything, holding instead that the world was eternal, fate was predetermined and the gods were not interested in the slightest in rewarding or punishing individuals, which gave them free rein to act as they liked. They believed in a democratic, not theocratic government (but the US, for example, would surely claim to merge both) and they had no strict guidelines for modesty or morality in personal or public behaviour, and instead thought liberality, showing the body openly and anything-at-all-goes sexual freedoms were the best way to pleasure and honour the beauty of man.
"Where the rest of the world saw Greek social, political, cultural and scholarly achievements as illuminating, our sages saw only spiritual and intellectual darkness," writes R. Hoff. The victory that we are celebrating, then, in the bleak darkness of midwinter, is a spiritual one: the darkness of idolatry against the light of G-d. Darkness and light, Darth Vader against Luke Skywalker, that age old battle that is still raging.
My guess is, despite the gloominess of London town, each one of those candles we light in Chanuka should remind us where true spiritual illumination stems from. 'Man delights me not,' said Hamlet, ' no, nor woman neither.' And the sun can't be our source of light because it's been shrouded for weeks. As representatives of Am Israel, our task is to shine with this spiritual light so others can, in the darkness of winter and the darkness of the soul, see a spark of something bright, illuminating and meaningful.
Which doesn't mean I don't miss Jerusalem. Remind me, please - it's been a while since I lived here. When does the sun start shining again? When? Oh my goodness. Really?