Hanukkah customs and experiences from around the world

How is Hanukkah celebrated by different Jewish communities around the globe?

 THERE WERE candles in  blue and in white. (photo credit: PXHERE)
THERE WERE candles in blue and in white.
(photo credit: PXHERE)

‘Growing up in South Africa,” Robert Hersowitz, a writer noted, “Hanukkah did not have the same resonance that the festival has in the northern hemisphere. Every year the festival was celebrated in the summer vacation when most Jewish families left the city for the coastal resorts.”

As he points out, it was a most different climate for the celebration. “The weather was always quite hot and humid. My family was not observant. We did not light Hanukkah candles at home and I only learned about kindling the lights by going to the synagogue on Friday nights with my father. The Hanukkah candles were lit before the Kabbalat Shabbat service began.”

He continued, “in those days, the ‘60s, Johannesburg shuls could only lure congregants by putting on a ‘show’ and that meant a cantor and a choir. Our shul was no exception, and I have vivid memories of Holocaust survivor Cantor Michael Davidowitz leading the shul choir with the most beautiful rendering of that hymn, ‘Maoz Tzur’ (‘Rock of Ages’) thought to have been written in the 13th century during the Crusades.”

As an Israeli now, he truly feels the spirit of the holiday. “To this day I still get goose bumps when my wife and I light the candles and sing Maoz Tzur in the window of our Jerusalem apartment facing the ancient walls of the Old City.”

As an American Jew in the ‘50s, we witnessed – at home – the lighting of the candles, playing dreidel (the four-sided spinning top game) and eating latkes as the major elements in the observance of the holiday. Each year, the candles used, were different. This was the case because candles were sent by institutions hoping to receive donations. Before the Israeli candles took over the market, we had fat candles, made from a colored orange wax. There were candles in blue and in white. “A practicing-at-home holiday, Hanukkah,” as explained by the noted sociologist, Prof. Marshall Sklare, “became the most observed Jewish religious act for American Jews.” Prof. Diane Ashton wrote a highly acclaimed book on the observance of Hanukkah from the Second Temple period forward.

 AS AN American Jew in the ‘50s, at  home we lit hanukkiot, played dreidel...  (credit: Congregation Beth Israel/Flickr) AS AN American Jew in the ‘50s, at home we lit hanukkiot, played dreidel... (credit: Congregation Beth Israel/Flickr)

Now in communities throughout the world, Chabad builds and lights giant hanukkiot in the hearts of the cities. With all this Hanukkah activity, the holiday is well known in the Christian and Moslem circles. The “nes gadol haya sham or poh” has flown off the spinning dreidel to make us fully aware of the holiday where we might be.

RARELY DO lists exist with a date when the first “Hannukah” arrived to a community. As a native of Atlanta, Georgia, I was pleased to discover an unusual entry in the well-researched book Third to None: The Saga of Savannah Jewry, written by Rabbi Saul Jacob Rubin. Leaving England, the first 42 Jews – “debtors” – arrived at Savannah, overcoming Atlantic Ocean difficulties. The date was July 11, 1733. Eight Ashkenazim joined 34 Sephardi Jews on the William and Sarah ship. We Georgia Jews feel proud that the colony’s first city, Savannah, was peopled by our fellow religionists when it began. My mother liked to call those 18th-century fellow religionists “FFG” “first families of Georgia.”

In the diary of Mordecai Sheftall, community leader, an entry on July 12, 1737, lists what was in the shipment sent to the colony by Benjamin Mendes da Costa of London in 1737. “Received,” Rubin writes: “from the generous donor three religious objects, a Torah, a hanukkiah and a quantity of books.” Rubin then continued, “A Hanukkah menorah would have better served German Jews than Sephardim, not only because of a greater inclination, but because Hanukkah is so rich in Germanic embellishments (latkes, dreidels, etc.).”

In spite of Rubin concluding that the Ashkenazim would use the hanukkiah more, the hanukkiah has remained in Mickve Israel congregation, initially Sephardi – now Reform – throughout the 289 years it has been in Savannah. On Hanukkah, the hanukkia is still lit in the Mickve Israel synagogue, the oldest one in constant use in the state of Georgia.

For the last few weeks, I have been asking friends and family if they ate sufganiyot (Hanukkah fried doughnuts) before they made aliyah. Most were of Ashkenazi background, only a few Sephardim. I found that my latke tradition rather than sufganiyot was matched by almost 100% of the people questioned.

 ... AND ATE latkes (credit: slgckgc/Unsplash) ... AND ATE latkes (credit: slgckgc/Unsplash)

At my weekly session, I asked my physical therapist – born in Paris, here almost 25 years – about the sufganiyot-latke match-off. Immediately, he answered that it is in the Rema, Rabbi Moses Isserles, on the Shulhan Aruch section related to Hanukkah, “it is required to eat sufganiyot.” He told me where to look it up: in the Shulhan Aruch 168:13 the Rema writes “it is customary to say Borei minay mezonot (blessing over grains) before eating boiled or deep-fried breads such as doughnuts and sufganiyot.”

THE HISTORY of sufganiyot begins with the father of the Rambam. Rabbi Maimon ben Joseph (born 1100) wrote. “People should not be lenient regarding any custom, even the lightest of customs. And one is obligated to make every effort to prepare festivities and foods to practice the miracle that God did for us on those days (Hanukkah). It has become customary to make ‘sufganiyot’ known in Arabic as ‘alsigh.’” Rabbi Maimon emphasizes. “This is an ancient custom because they are fried in oil in observance of God’s blessing.”

Prof. Harvey Goldberg, veteran anthropologist at The Hebrew University, always seeks the broader contexts of Jewish customs. On Hanukkah, Jews in Libya would eat sfenj, which was simple pancake-size dough fried in oil that could then be dipped into sugar or honey. This delicacy also was popular among local Muslims during winter months, as well as in the Ramadan season. The term sfenj is known to Jews in other North African communities but might differ in size and in the style of preparation. It is likely that both sfenj and sufganiyot are linguistically derived from the same triliteral Semitic root. For the Jews in Tripoli, the significance of the dish was taken from tradition – the oil of the Hanukkah miracle.

While easy to prepare, sfenj typically were purchased from street vendors and brought home by the father in the family. Rabbi Frija Zoaretz, a leader of the Libyan community in Israel, has provided a social perspective on the food-based institution. Mothers in Tripoli would bring sfenj to the homes where married daughters resided.

Parallel practices existed regarding special foods connected to Purim and to Passover. In a society that was strongly male-oriented, this holiday gesture was a way of reasserting nuclear family ties after daughters had moved to a different patrilineal unit. One might say that the oil of the sfenj helped grease the wheels of kinship.

 LIBYAN HANUKKAH delights? ‘Sfenj’ (credit: Wikimedia Commons) LIBYAN HANUKKAH delights? ‘Sfenj’ (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

A Chabad website has some insights why giving Hanukkah gelt (Yiddish for money) every night of the holiday is legitimate. “It is thought to be very materialistic to give Hanukkah gelt (in its modern-day format – massive gifts). On the other hand, by doing it, we celebrate the miracle, in a more intense manner, by channeling our material possessions towards the spiritual ends.”

When it comes to the purchasing of sufganiyot here in Israel, we are lured by all the different types exhibited in the windows of the bakery. Each baker “tries to outdo the other,” and we are the beneficiaries.

Anael Brown, a writer whose specialty is food, explains how moderation can make a sufganiyot even more delicious. Someone had asked her a question and misunderstood her answer, so she reacts in writing. “Why would I try to avoid sufganiyot? I actually look forward to that time period when they appear. Even then, for me, I try to eat sufganiyot with moderation.”

The observance of holiday of Hanukkah in the US has presented a challenge because it falls in the proximity of Christmas. In his essay on Jewish popular culture, Jeffrey Shandler writes about Hanukkah climbing from a minor festival to an elaborate celebration both among Jews and in the American public sphere. The dreidel and the hanukkiah decorate “public winter displays and seasonal greeting cards.”

Shandler points to the most exciting developments helping American Jews to feel even more a part of their country. “The Americanization of the holiday is epitomized by recent designs for Hanukkah menorahs featuring popular cartoon characters... ” For me, I was always struck how in the 1980s the famous TV series, thirtysomething, Friends, South Park provided episodes devoted to observing Hanukkah.” Shandler emphasizes that these were for the interfaith families.

Hanukkah is the only holiday, I feel, that can be manipulated in this manner. Growing up with the tension between Hanukkah and Christmas observance (even I was given Christmas presents), I actually am happy that Hanukkah can be in the spotlight.

I feel very positive that our holiday has become part of American popular culture.