Jonah at the Narrow Bridge

A Jewish Anti-Zionist Makes Chanukah Lights from Scratch

Brooke Lober

Land Back Chanukah Gelt.

Early in 2020, my longtime interest in the combination of sacred and political forms of Jewish decolonial practice brought me to the home of Jonah Aline Daniel, a Jewish anti-Zionist activist who supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement with the production of Jewish ritual objects. Last winter, when casual visits with friends were still possible, I went to Jonah’s candle-making workshop on a Northern California vineyard, humbly built out of a small trailer. I had become curious about Jonah’s candlemaking work, and how they came to make these magical objects. We opened the workshop door together, breathing in a thick honey scent of beeswax that soaked the air. I observed the small room, overflowing with evidence of the craft-making process. The chandlery, or candle storehouse, looked like a little barn. Wooden walls, lined with cabinets, bore hundreds of small bottles of tincture and packets of herbs, labeled with hand-drawn illustrations and funky script. A wipe board calendar kept time, marking months of scheduled workflow. A wood platform, laden with side-by-side crock pots, messily overflowed with thousands of drips of golden beeswax. We stood still in the scattered remains of months of nonstop activity: evidence of a season of candle-making, recently completed. 

Jonah sing-songed an explanation of the workshop as they welcomed me in: “Everything you see in here, I figured out how to do it myself.” They sat down at the table’s edge, holding three strands of beeswax like locks of hair to show me how it’s braided into a havdallah candle, to be used at sundown on Saturday. “I’ve always been interested in sort of making things from scratch if I could, like in a cooking way, and a DIY way. If I'm using it, I want to know where it comes from and how it's made.” As we spoke, I was struck by the scope of Jonah’s work. It’s not just candles. While making these ritual objects, Jonah carves a path for reinventing Jewish study and practice more or less “from scratch.” Jonah’s project, Narrow Bridge Candles, is entering its second decade. Through it, Jonah transformed a personal crisis into a moment of change. That change allowed for what Atalia Omer calls “reimagining Jewishness,” the innovation of new movements for Jewish solidarity with Palestine.

Jonah’s candle-making began in a 100-foot square bedroom in South Berkeley. When they relocated to rural Northern California, Jonah began to keep bees, care for the land, and produce herbal remedies and ritual objects in the cozy studio space. Jonah’s candles now stand at the center of sacred moments strewn across a network of cultural resurgence: on the evening of Shabbat, sundown havdallah, or Chanuka’s eight nights, in hundreds of homes, Jewish ritual resonates with the spirit of Palestinian and Indigenous movements, represented by Narrow Bridge Candles. The company’s sales make a concrete contribution to these struggles. A portion of proceeds benefit the international campaign to boycott, divest, and sanction the state of Israel, for instance, through the campaign against the Jewish National Fund. Another portion benefits Indigenous sovereignty, supporting organizations like the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, a Bay Area-based project for women-led, Indigenous land reclamation. Through these two projects, the candles engender resistance against related but geographically distant forms of settler colonialism: both “here” on the West Coast, and “there” in Palestine. 

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Like many Jewish anti-Zionists of our generation, Jonah’s anticolonial politics grew out of the antiracist movements of the early 2000s. In 2001, Jonah helped organize the White Privilege Conference in Iowa, and soon started a coalition of white antiracist students at Grinnell College. Upon graduation, they moved to Des Moines, and worked closely with a community organizer who acted as a mentor for the racial justice activism of many young people: Jesse Villalobos, director of the National Conference for Community and Justice. Villalobos spoke openly about the racist underpinnings of Zionism and the urgency of the struggle for justice in Palestine, which profoundly influenced Jonah. When Villalobos put a poster from the Palestinian Film Festival into the Conference’s office window, he was accused of antisemitism by powerful and wealthy, white Jewish people in Des Moines. After a long struggle, Villalobos was removed from his position.

As Jonah explained to me, it was deeply instructive to witness Villalobos get fired in response to his advocacy for Palestine, and to perceive the antagonistic relationship between Zionists and antiracist organizing among youth of color. “I became clear about who I wanted to be, and where I wanted to be positioned in relationship to the issue,” Jonah recalled. “There was this man of color who was my friend and my mentor who was doing really powerful, just work around racism and supporting young people and young people of color in Des Moines. And I also really trusted him.” The false accusation of antisemitism—cast for little more than “basically saying the word Palestine”—exposed the injustice of a Zionist project that isolates and condemns people of color who are vocal about Palestinian dispossession. Witnessing the Zionist attack on the National Conference for Community Justice was a formative experience for Jonah.

At the same time, Jonah was deterred from practicing Judaism in mainstream institutions. “I had an interest in participating in Jewish spiritual and cultural spaces. You know, I’m living in Des Moines in the year 2000, as a queer, gender-nonconforming Jewish person. Where am I? What do I do? As it happens for a lot of young Jewish people, having a Bar or Bat or B’nai Mitzvah, and then—that’s the end, rather than the beginning of Jewish education.” Even though Jonah was interested in participating in Jewish community life in their 20s, they were confronted with the political commitments of mainstream US Jewish institutions. At that time, Jonah was “really disgusted to be in a congregation with an Israeli flag on the bimah, and also, with an American flag on the bimah. Just really disgusted! Having an anti-imperialist analysis, and the beginning of an anti-Zionist analysis, I was really disgusted to be in a spiritual space that doesn’t have any critical framework around any of that.” Crucially, like so many young Jewish people, Jonah was also alienated by the heteronormativity they encountered in synagogue. “The queer stuff, on top of all the rest,” provoked questions: “who am I? How do I participate? And I just decided, if I’m going to have a Jewish spiritual life, I’m gonna have to do it myself.”

By 2008, when I met Jonah at a protest against the Jewish Community Center’s celebration of the state of Israel’s sixtieth anniversary, they were deeply involved in Jewish anti-Zionist organizing in the Bay Area, where they brought a vision for spiritual practice to our activism. Jonah and I were both founding members of IJAN, the International Jewish anti-Zionist Network, and active in the Bay Area Chapter. I remember the desperate energy that following winter, when we maintained constant presence in raucous street protests and community-based organizational meetings that took place with increasing intensity during and after the Gaza Massacre. In that horrifying assault, the Israeli state, as it often does, used Jewish history to identify a military operation. In this case, it was Operation Cast Lead, named for the lead dreidels of Chanuka, invoked to recall the ancient Maccabee rebellion against Hellenistic rule. In twenty-two days, the IDF murdered nearly 1400 Palestinian people and injured many more, destroying the infrastructure of Gaza. They attacked medical facilities, and unleashed white phosphorous on a trapped population—both constituting war crimes. In response, protests surged across the world; in the Bay Area, IJAN joined the US Palestinian Community Network to blockade the Israeli consulate in San Francisco. The Bay Area Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid launched publicly soon after, as local Palestinian, Arab, antiracist and leftist organizations increasingly mobilized coalitions in the international BDS movement. 

The following summer, on the heels of so much emotionally charged reckoning with the brutality of colonial violence, Jonah’s father died. When Jonah and their mother went to receive their father’s ashes at Chicago Jewish Funerals, they received a Shivah candle made in Israel—and made of toxic paraffin, which, when burned, is linked to cancer and asthma. Jonah was overwhelmed with both disgust and outrage. Jonah recounts, “This acute grief experience, lighting the Shivah candle and being present with it as it burned for 7 days of excruciating grief, shock, and sadness, heightened a desire for me to make a new path. It seemed clear that I wasn't alone in needing a new way to practice the Jewish rituals that mark our most important life cycle moments." Once again, Jonah experienced a desire to practice Jewish ritual without participating in Zionism, a racist settler colonial project and an ideology of ethnonationalism. Like so many Jewish people, Jonah had wanted “to buy candles and burn candles, to buy candle holders, and just had such a block, wanting to access ritual tools. Because we go into a Judaica store, and almost everything is made in Israel. So, the candles became the focus: ‘this is the thing that I can make’. And I didn't take a candle class, I didn't interview a candle maker. I just kind of decided I was going to do it.” Fulfilling that desire became the moment of change.

Jonah grew up in a family of liberal Democrats, in which voting every election cycle was the limit of political participation. They attended a Jewish Reconstructionist congregation, where Jewish education was mystified by Zionist narratives. As they explain, “I remember being really confused about my Jewish education. Okay, we're learning about the Bible and what happened in the Torah, and now we're talking about Israel—the present day state of Israel. And it just seems there's a lot of space in between those things, but it wasn't clear at all what happened between the Torah and today. Also really unclear was the relationship between the words of the Torah, and material and historical facts. Are these stories a spiritual lineage? or events that happened as they are described? Those kinds of distinctions are not necessarily obvious to small children.”  This is a typical scenario. Indoctrinated into transhistorical narrative, young Jewish people, even in progressive synagogues, are encouraged to imagine themselves as essentially linked to ancient populations, producing a fantasy of Jewish indigeneity in the Levant. Meanwhile, the modern nation-state and its contemporary violence, including the dispossession of Palestinian people, is justified through the promotion of contemporary Jewish cultural attachment to the Holy Land. 

For Jonah, this displacement of Jewish sacred practice promotes an ideology justifying Palestinian displacement and oppression. It was also a dematerialized, abstract adaptation of spiritual life, precluding the potential for immanence that Jewish ritual might provide. “Without knowing anything about Israel, without knowing anything about what happened between the Torah and 1989, there's this foundational story that you really should be looking to somewhere far away to know who you are as a Jewish person. Or to know what your relationship to Judaism is, or your relationship to Jewish lineage, or your relationship to Jewish history, or how you want to engage with Jewish spiritual and cultural life.” Jonah insists that Jewish life itself suffered from this imaginary geography. “It's there, in this place that you haven't been; it's not here. So it creates this deficit, by definition: it's not about connection with land, and plants, and peoples here. It's not about engagement with just movements here. It's like, ‘we don't know what it is, but we know it's over there.’” 

This attachment of Jewish sacred life to the land of Palestine facilitated the creation of Jewish ritual consonant with Israeli colonization. The Jewish National Fund (JNF), a para-state organization that owns massive tracts of land, has existed since 1901 to hold property in perpetuity for “the Jewish people. ” On the sites where displaced Palestinian people once lived, the JNF lays a cover of Aleppo pine that fulfills the Zionist claim to “make the desert bloom.” At least forty-six JNF pine forests now cover the sites of historic Palestinian villages, hiding the history of Palestinian dispossession. But for Jewish people in the U.S., the JNF ostensibly represents a link with Jewish sacred practice, the beauty of nature, and a benevolent relationship with the environment. The JNF advertises their tree planting project, not as cover for genocidal violence or a hostile monocropping of non-native plant species, but rather as a marker of life events for U.S. Jews. Jewish people are encouraged to sponsor the planting of a tree for $18, the number 18 meant to signify the sacred “chai,” meaning “life” in Hebrew. As Jonah says, “Their activities for raising money and garnering American support are really centered around connecting Jewish life cycle moments with the colonization of Palestine.” Like Jonah, many Jewish people in the Palestine solidarity movement decry this cynical attachment of a colonial state project to the spiritual center of Jewish life. “What do you do when someone dies, someone is born, someone gets married? Or B'nai mitzvah, when you become a Jewish adult?—you plant a tree for them. There's something about that that's very beautiful in the way that it sounds, because it’s like a continuation of life. It's connection to earth. It's physical form in this place that you supposedly care about. And it’s been really, really successful in telling the story that Jewish life is inextricable from Zionism and from the state of Israel. It ties those things together in a way that's really painful and really difficult to pull apart.”

As Jonah says, Zionist domination of Jewish spiritual life made that spirituality bereft of presence: the sense of being where we are. Historically, this concept is called “Doykayt,” or “hereness” in Yiddish. Doykayt was promoted by the Jewish Bund, a radical socialist organization whose work is reclaimed in some contemporary radical Jewish subcultures. In the US, contemporary practices of Doykayt are an Ashkenazi response to the Jewish condition of living diasporically, with a practice of presence in the places we reside; non-Ashkenazi Jewish communities also practice forms of presence, in multiple Jewish diasporas that dot the globe. 

Jonah engages in “hereness” with support for Indigenous sovereignty and land stewardship, following the call of the indigenous movement in Northern California, where the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust works to “rematriate the land.” As the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust writes on their website, “guided by the belief that land is the foundation that can bring us together, Sogorea Te’ calls on us all to heal from the legacies of colonialism and genocide, to remember different ways of living, and to do the work that our ancestors and future generations are calling us to do.” Producing an ethical practice for Jewish relation to both the land of Palestine and the land of Turtle Island, Jonah’s work joins in a great and underreported movement for anticolonial Jewish praxis. This year, Jonah’s candles arrive in the mail with shiny, colorful Hannukkah gelt. The coins are imprinted with the words “Free Palestine” and, on the flip side, “Land Back,” a slogan that represents decolonization in the form of returned land. Reckoning with the traces of our spiritual, cultural and material inheritances while engaging with the present, the work of Narrow Bridge Candles merges the sacred and political for a reinvented, holistic relation with the world. This is the Jewish practice of tikkun olam, or “repairing the world,” today.

The metaphor of the “Narrow Bridge” from which Jonah’s candles take their name originates in the work of Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav. Nachman was a rabbi important to the late eighteenth-century Hasidic movement for spiritual revival of Judaism in the Pale of Settlement—the region where Jewish people were legally confined in the Russian Empire until its demise in the early twentieth century. Rebbe Nachman is remembered for writing the words: “Know! This world is a very narrow bridge. The important thing is not to be afraid.” While this usual translation offers an imperative of bravery, as Arthur Green writes in Tormented Master: The Life and Spiritual Quest of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav, a closer reading of the original Hebrew suggests an internal mechanism, as “to be afraid” is the Hebrew reflexive verb. The quote can thus read “the important thing is not to scare yourself,” indicating the necessity of overcoming internalized fear, allowing for bold action in lived experience—the construction of a narrow bridge. 

This year, life changed drastically as we braced ourselves in response to the pandemic. Those of us who live in the West were additionally beset by the hyperlocal effects of climate crisis: millions of acres burned across California, Oregon, and Washington in the late summer and early fall. The wildfires in Southern Pomo, Coast Miwok, and Kashaya land—Sonoma County—intensified the disasters of the last several years. Fires engulfed habitats of human and nonhuman life, filling the air with unbearable smoke. Jonah had to leave the workshop they had constructed, and has relocated, with a new Narrow Bridge Candles workshop on Coast Salish Land, Key Peninsula, Washington. In 2020, Jonah transitioned Narrow Bridge Candles to a member-based business through Patreon  in hopes of creating a more sustainable endeavor. Jonah has created their own narrow path, providing an example of survival in the intertwined crises of our time, crises constructed through colonialism, capitalism, and the race and gender hierarchies that animate them. 

As Naomi Klein names the final chapter of her classic treatise on the “Shock Doctrine”—a concept that has resurged in importance this year—“Shock Wears Off.” As Klein tells it, in the wake of a collective trauma, a story can return us to our potential for self-determination, interconnection, and shared, liberatory action. Klein writes, “As soon as we have a new narrative that offers a perspective on the shocking events, we become reoriented and the world begins to make sense again” (458). It’s December 2020, and we’re in a new stay-at-home order here where I live, in xučyun (Huichin), on the unceded land of the Chochenyo-speaking Ohlone people. Oakland. Emotions run high as the holidays approach, and we cancel even our carefully planned outdoor gatherings. As I prepare to light Chanuka lights, home alone with my teenage daughter, I revel in the scent of beeswax. Shock wears off. I return to our shared story of liberatory Jewish sacred practice and radical anticolonialism to bring us, Jewish people with generations of ancestors to guide our course, back into ourselves and into the present, as shock wears off.

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