For me, the Hanukkah experience in Israel is quite different than when I celebrated Hanukkah as a child in the United States. In America, many Jewish parents give their children presents, have elaborate Hanukkah light displays, hang Hanukkah banners, and utilize big menorahs, etc. This is very likely due to the occurrence of Hanukkah around the time of Christmas. The Saturday Night Live television show has created a character known as Hanukkah Harry, a sort of Jewish Santa Claus. In the New York Times, Jonathan Safran Foer satirically claimed that “he is a real person who drops in on Jewish homes each of the nights of Hanukkah to deliver gifts that are in no way dependent on children’s good behavior.”
None of this exists in Israel, where Hanukkah is not viewed to be an eight-day gift giving holiday. However, children do receive Hanukkah “gelt” (coins) made out of chocolate and dreidels, and every one does light candles, like in America. Furthermore, young Israeli children frequently do crafts related to the holiday, sing various songs, have parties, and go to Hanukkah performances. During Hanukkah, there are several big-production children’s shows that tour the country. Many Israeli families also utilize the fact that school is closed to visit Jerusalem and Modi’in, where the Hanukkah story actually took place.
Also, unlike in America, where the Jewish community is predominantly Ashkenazi, the Jewish community within Israel is more diverse. In fact, fifty percent of Israel’s population consists of Mizrahi Jews, who have very different Hanukkah foods and traditions from Ashkenazi Jews. For example, in the Moroccan Jewish community, it is typical to make svinge, which is a fried fritter made out of flour and oil, and to place chocolate, halva, sugar, and home-made jams on top of it.
The Moroccan Jewish community was not introduced to the sufganiyot or Hanukkah jelly-doughnuts eaten by Ashkenazi Jews until they moved to Israel and adopted it as their own. However, to date, seldom do Moroccan Jews in Israel eat latkes, the potato pancakes eaten by Ashkenazi Jews for Hanukkah. Moroccan Jews prefer to eat a special dairy couscous for Hanukkah, to commemorate the bravery of a woman named Yehudit (Judith).
According to Jewish tradition, around the second century BCE, the village of Bethulia was being besieged by the cruel Holofernes. In order to defeat the enemy, Yehudit (Judith) seduced Holofernes with salty cheese and wine, and then when he became drunk, she decapitated him and brought his head back to the village in her basket. This led the enemy into confusion and Yehudit arranged for the Israelites to launch a surprise attack while the enemy was still in shock, which led to a Jewish victory against the Assyrians. Ashkenazi Jews eat cheese or blintzes for Hanukkah to note the tenacity of Judith and it is common for Jews around the world to eat dairy for Hanukkah.
Other Mizrahi Jewish communities have traditions that commemorate Judith as well. For example, in Tunisia, Jewish families used to attend the synagogue on the seventh day of Hanukkah in honor of Judith. There, women used to traditionally kiss the Torah, while the men studied what the Talmud had to say about the Hanukkah story. Yet, there are other unique Mizrahi customs. In Yemen, Jewish children traditionally went house to house collecting wicks for the Hanukkah menorah while singing, “O father Salim, give us a present.”
In Iran, Jews traditionally ate a special kind of egg fritter called Kuku Sabzi, which was traditionally served with rice, feta cheese, and crusty bread. In Iraq, Jews would make sambusak, a fried pastry filled with chick peas, onions and spices, and two types of koobe, which are small patties or dumplings that can be fried or baked. These fried foods made by Jews seek to remember the oil that burnt for eight days when the Temple was rekindled by the Maccabbees in Jerusalem.
By Rachel Avraham
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