JERUSALEM (AP) — For Reform Jews like us, Hanukkah means lighting candles, eating latkes and opening presents. But this year the holiday holds deeper meaning: It's a way of remembering our trip to Israel, where we connected with the real story of Hanukkah and brought a piece of it home.
We took the trip to celebrate our son Aden's bar mitzvah. In addition to me, my husband and our sons ages 10, 13 and 16, six other relatives came along. I'd imagined this once-in-a-lifetime bucket list adventure for years, but we'd never traveled with three generations before. And while I usually do our trip-planning, this time we hired a guide and driver so we could safely cover a lot of ground in a short time.
THE GUIDE WHO KEPT US GOING
A big part of the success of our trip was our guide, Dani Margolis, who was worth his weight in shekels. Official Israeli guides are required to know ancient history, food, culture and geography. Dani knows that and more: He's tended camels with Bedouins, apprenticed with archaeologists, been in the army and now lives on a kibbutz. An avid outdoorsman and foodie, he also pushed us outside our comfort zones, from rappelling in the Valley of Death outside Jerusalem to eating schwarma near the Golan Heights.
His itinerary seemed optimistic, if not insane for a family ranging in age from 10 to 78. But his enthusiasm, knowledge and storytelling kept us going. When Dani said climb into a tiny underground cave, or stand on a volcano overlooking the Syrian border with mortars firing in the distance, we did it and were better for it.
DIG FOR A DAY
When Dani said we were headed to an archaeological dig, I feared boredom. But our visit to the National Park of Beit Guvrin turned out to be a highlight for all, from kids to grandparents. Armed with dirty shovels, spades and buckets, we got a lesson in the proper way to dig before entering the underground unexcavated caves. The program, called Dig for a Day, is run by the Archaeological Seminars Institute.
The cool, dark cave we explored was small with low, uneven ceilings, partitioned by a few rocky walls and lit by generators. We each got two buckets: one for significant finds and one for junk. We couldn't believe how much fun it was to sit in a pile of dirt, sifting the ground, looking for signs of life from 2,000 years ago. It was thrilling to find even the tiniest remnants of ancient pottery, animal bones and tile. We oohed and ahed in envy when a girl unearthed a small intact metal oil lamp.
You can't keep what you find. But you can take bits home from piles of broken artifacts that have been examined and deemed superfluous. We eagerly filled our pockets with pottery shards of all different colors and textures.
According to Israel's Biblical Archaeological Society, one onsite dig unearthed part of a stone tablet with an inscription connected to the Maccabees, the rebel army whose story is central to Hanukkah. When the Maccabees rededicated a temple, the story goes that there was only enough oil to light a lamp for one day, but the light burned for eight days. That's why Hanukkah candles are lit for eight nights.
—Renting bikes in Tel Aviv: Ride the Mediterranean shoreline to the old city of Jaffa, stop at a seaside cafe and swim at a crowded beach.
—Tubing on the Sea of Galilee: In northern Israel, see Tiberias from a motorboat. Lively Israeli music blares as you bounce through the water on a giant inner tube.
—Secret bullet factory in Tel Aviv: This former kibbutz looks like an ordinary farm until you enter the laundry building and peer down into the secret passageway to an underground space. Here volunteers produced bullets in the late 1940s as part of the fight to create the State of Israel.
—Jerusalem light and sound show: This 45-minute outdoor show tells the history of Jerusalem with animation and lights projected onto ancient castle buildings of the Tower of David.
—"Abraham's tent": Don Biblical garb, hop on feisty camels and ride along cliffs overlooking the desert at a themed site called Genesis Land. Sitting on wool blankets around a low table, you'll eat a delicious traditional meal and hear Biblical tales.
—Jerusalem scavenger hunt: Find clues on a timed hunt through back alleys, synagogues and neighborhood bakeries.
—Other must-dos: Floating in the Dead Sea, hearing echoes when you yell from the top of Masada, shopping in Jerusalem's open markets, visiting the artists' village of Tsfat and wandering the ancient ruins of King Herod's Caesaria.
THE SPIRITUAL CONNECTION
Aden's outdoor bar mitzvah service was short and intimate, with a portable, beautifully carved wood ark and the Western Wall as a dramatic backdrop. Our freelance cantor was warm, encouraging and inclusive. It was the most joyful, moving celebration I've ever witnessed.
That said, we are not a very religious family. For us, the trip was more about appreciating Israeli history and culture. We loved the spirit of the people and the connections to the past. Every name has meaning, every area has a story.
Among our many souvenirs, perhaps the most treasured are the shards from the caves. We'll place them around our menorah this year in memory of our trip.