As Jews celebrate Hanukkah around the globe, like every year, I am reminded of the fact that the way that Israelis celebrate Hanukkah is very different from how I grew up celebrating Hanukkah in America. I grew up in a very secular and assimilated American Jewish family but Hanukkah was a big deal. Every year, my Great Uncle Harold would come to visit and prepare homemade potato latkes with applesauce. My mother would make Hanukkah cookies. I did not grow up on sufgonyot, svinge or any other dish. We always used to light the menorah and sing during each night of Hanukkah.
We even had Hanukkah lights in addition so that we could compete with our Christian neighbors during the winter holiday season. Instead of brightly colored Christmas lights, we had blue and white dreidel lights and banners spread out all over the house that wished guests a happy Hanukkah. We also sent Hanukkah cards to relatives, just like the Christians sent Christmas cards. When I told my father I was jealous of the Christian kids who had Santa Klaus, my father invented a magical creature called Grandpa Hanukkah that rode around on a magical menorah and gave Jewish children eight presents instead of one. So, I had a present for each of the nights of Hanukkah and played dreidel with my Great Uncle Harold, who always let me win. Some years, we also went to a community Hanukkah lighting ceremony in front of the White House, where there were much festivities.
However, outside the Hanukkah section of the local decorations shop, the synagogues, the Jewish community centers, the Jewish schools, and our homes, Hanukkah was a side show; everything revolved around Christmas. In my elementary school, we sang a couple of Hanukkah songs but most of the songs we sang were Christmas related. We made gingerbread houses but did not play dreidel. In the end of the day, we were part of a minority community. Nevertheless, since the DC Jewish community is huge and our neighborhood was heavily Jewish, I felt this less than Jews who grew up within smaller Jewish communities in America.
But when I came to Israel, I discovered a completely different reality. In order to highlight the differences between celebrating Hanukkah in Israel verses America, I decided to interview both Israeli Jews and American expatriates living in Israel so that they can share how they celebrate Hanukkah and how it is different from the Hanukkah I celebrated as a child in Rockville, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, DC.
According to Lis Hacker, a Wisconsin native who now lives in Israel, “Everywhere you turn in Israel, you can feel the presence of Hanukkah. I walked into the supermarket and there was a menorah. I was driving in the city and in the middle of the traffic circle, there was a menorah. Hanukkah is all around me when I am in Israel and it warms my heart. In the US, there may be an obligatory menorah in the biggest mall but that is about it. Although, I do miss being with my family in the US for Hanukkah. That is the hardest part about celebrating Hanukkah in Israel. Other than that, bring on the sufgonyot!”
However, not everyone agrees with Lis. Religious American Jews from heavily Jewish populated areas who moved to Israel and joined the religious Ashkenazi Jewish community here in Israel feel less of a gap. Ben Halpern, a Baltimore native who now lives in Israel, told JerusalemOnline: “Lighting the menorah is mostly the same, except that olive oil is far more prevalent here than candles. The songs are the same. Only the dreidel seems different.” In the US, the dreidels say nes gadol haya shem, a great miracle happened there. In Israel, the dreidels say nes gadol haya po, a great miracle happened here.
Leah Aharoni, another observant Jewish American who made Aliyah, does nevertheless feel a difference between how Ashkenazi Jews celebrate Hanukkah in America verses Israel: “In America, Hanukkah is much more commercialized. In Israel, people are more connected to the spiritual and religious meaning of the holiday, especially in the religious community. It is a very spiritual time. It is becoming more and more significant. There is a lot of Jewish teachings about Hanukkah. Women are taking more ownership of it as well. There is a Jewish law that when the candles are lit, you don’t work for a half an hour. They turn it into a time of prayer and gratitude. More and more women in Israel are doing it. Also in the US, Hanukkah is juxtaposed to Christmas. Here, we don’t have that. I think in America, it is more an Ashkenazi thing with the latkes. In Israel, because the Jewish community is more multi-cultural, we have the svinge, the sufgonoyot, the latkes and other things due to the existence of various Jewish ethnic groups here. In the US, it is more about presents and the commercial stuff. Here, it is a family time to go out on outings and spend time together. We just came back from Eilat. It was full of families on vacation. We don’t have that in the US.”
However, Israelis who have never been to the United States have a completely different view of Hanukkah than American Jews who immigrated to the Jewish state. Sivan Gamliel, a resident of Nahariyya who comes from a family that is half Yemenite and half Moroccan, told JerusalemOnline: “In Israel, Hanukkah is not a big deal. It’s just for the kids because they get off from school. They eat sufgonyot. In Israel, people give money to the kids and they play with dreidels. But for all the people, it is not a major holiday. You just light the menorah in the evening, sing songs, and put the menorah by the window. This is it. It is more of a holiday for the religious. They read Psalms and some of them dance. I heard from all of religious people do circle dances next to the menorah. Half an hour after you light the menorah, you are supposed to just sit and sing songs. The Moroccans eat svinge. We don’t do something more special. America is different. They do a big celebration. But for us, it is a regular day. It is just special for the kids, who do special events for kids but it is not like that for the adults.”
Shachar Avraham, a resident of Netanya who comes from a family that is half Moroccan and half Iraqi, has a different take on the holiday than Sivan. For him, the holiday is a bit more significant: “Hanukkah in my eyes symbolizes the victory of Judaism over anti-Semitism. It is the victory of Jewish culture and traditions against foreign cultures and traditions. Above anything, it symbolizes our pride as Jewish people in the face of those that try to cause us to lose our identity. We insist to fight over what and who we are. In Israel, we mark the miracle of the oil, the war against the Greeks and the Hellenists, light the menorah in accordance with Jewish law and eat traditional foods like sufgonyot and svinge. Since Hanukkah is not one of the three main festivals and is not written in the Torah, sometimes it feels like a less important holiday. But in fact, it is important for it gives inspiration to preserve and not be ashamed of our identity as well as to fight for it.”
This Op-Ed/Analysis is the author’s personal opinion and does not necessarily reflect the opinions or views of JerusalemOnline.com.