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New London couple had the will, then found the way to celebrate Hanukkah

By Lisa McGinley

Publication: The Day

Published December 30. 2010 4:00AM   Updated December 30. 2010 1:13PM
Abigail Pheiffer/The Day
Rabbi Carl Astor, left, and his wife, Sharon, in their New London home with the hanukkiah that was lit for the final night of Hanukkah on Dec. 8 - seven years after the couple improvised a Hanukkah celebration while traveling in New Zealand.

Unlike Christmas, Hanukkah is a somewhat moveable feast. In the Northern Hemisphere it arrives in late fall or early winter, when the lighting of one more candle each evening for eight nights illumines the darkest time of year.

Not so in countries below the equator. Winter here is summer there. So when Sharon and Carl Astor - he is the rabbi of Congregation Beth El in New London - rode their tandem bike around New Zealand's South Island at the end of 2003, it was summertime, but also time for Hanukkah on the Jewish lunar calendar.

The Astors were winding down the final weeks of a four-month sabbatical by pedaling up the island's west coast.

"Hanukkah was important to us, but we never considered it to be a major, major holiday. But we still wanted to do something for Hanukkah," Carl Astor says.

On their ride from place to place on the island's long loop of a coastal road they stopped at a little grocery store.

"The only thing I saw there that seemed to be workable is these little birthday candles," he says. "I guess every place has them. I guess they celebrate the same way we do. So I bought a couple of boxes of these birthday candles for Hanukkah."

'Publicizing the miracle'

Sightseeing by tandem means traveling ultra-light. The Astors didn't have a hanukkiyah, the candelabrum Jews set in their windows on Hanukkah evenings. They didn't have a windowsill. But they did have matches, and the matches rode the bike in a little tin candy box.

"That was sort of a perfect hanukkiyah because we could melt the candles onto the container," Sharon remembers. Anchored by their own melted wax, the little candles would make Hanukkah bright.

The idea behind lighting the Hanukkah candles is "Pirsum Ha-nes," which means "publicizing the miracle."

The miracle occurred when the Jews reclaimed the Temple from the Syrian-Greek forces that had defiled it in the second century B.C. and martyred some of the rebels. The Jewish soldiers wanted to burn holy oil for eight days to purify the Temple, but had only enough oil for one. Miraculously, the oil lasted for eight days.

Singing some Hanukkah songs

On the fifth night of Hanukkah the Astors parked their bike and kayaked into the Abel Tasman forest. The forest goes down to the sea, and seals swam right up to their craft.

There are only two ways in and out: kayaks and feet. Nevertheless, lots of tents dotted the campground.

Dusk came very late because it was Dec. 23, nearly the longest day of the year in New Zealand.

"So that night we heard these people in a tent right nearby speaking Hebrew," Carl Astor recalls. "When it got dark we went over to them and I spoke to them in Hebrew. I told them we were just about to light the Hanukkah candles and would they like to join us? They were so excited and said, 'Oh, my God, we thought we'd never light the Hanukkah candles here. We'd love to.'

"And they came over, and together we lit the candles and we started singing just some Hanukkah songs, nothing loud, just singing little Hanukkah songs.

"And then this lady came over to us and she said, 'My daughters heard you singing the Hanukkah songs, and they miss Hanukkah so much.'

"And it was the whole family, three daughters, husband and the wife, and they came over and said, 'Do you mind if we light them again and say the blessings?' and they did, and started singing some songs. I think there ended up being about eight of us sitting around lighting the Hanukkah candles and talking."

One family had emigrated from South Africa to Australia and another was Israeli. Everyone told about their communities back home.

At that point the light of Hanukkah truly dawned on the Astors.

"You know," Carl Astor says, "there's the custom to put the hanukkiyah into the window, just so people would see it. I guess every religion has that kind of thing, lights in the window, and I guess we never really thought of it or never really took it seriously ... and then all of a sudden it occurred to us that the fact that we did this out in the open like that ... "

"... made it possible for other people..." Sharon says,

"... for other people to celebrate and be part of it," Carl finishes.

"You go in with one expectation," he says. "We really thought that the trip, the park and everything, that that was going to be the thing we would remember - the seals, the beauty - but really the thing we remember the most is this: the interaction with other human beings as a spiritual kind of fulfillment."

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