Hanukkah, the eight-day Jewish festival that is celebrated in the Hebrew month of Kislev has taken on a different character in different communities around the world. Due to the long two-thousand year exile from the land of Israel, the Jewish people lived in different countries and over time these different communities celebrated the Jewish holidays with slightly different twists. Today, as the Jewish people return to their homeland it is fascinating to discover the different customs that evolved around the world in different Jewish communities. Here are eight different customs for each one of the eight nights of Chanukah…
- It was common in the Alsace region of France to find double-decker Menorahs which allowed fathers and sons to light together. This lovely custom reflects the family spirit that is so strong in Jewish holidays and especially so on Hanukkah when the family sits around the candles together and enjoys each other’s company.
- Those who live in Israel are used to seeing the Menorah stood outside buildings in special boxes so as to publicize the miracle of Hanukkah. What is less well-known is that in communities such as Morocco, Algeria and India is was the accepted practice to hang the Menorah on a hook on a wall near the doorway acing the doorpost that held the Mezuzah.
- Two brave heroines, Hannah and Judith are celebrated on the seventh night of Hanukkah in Yemenite and North African communities. Hannah sacrificed her seven sons instead of giving up her religion and Judith seduced and assassinated Holofernes who was the Assyrian emperor’s top general, an act that led to Jewish military victory.
- In Colombia there is a community of Jewish people who for several hundred years were forced to hide their Jewish identity. They started their own Hanukkah tradition of eating fried plantains in place of the traditional fried potato latkes.
- Every Jewish child knows that the Hebrew letters on the special spinning top associated with Hanukkah, the dreidel, are nun, gimel, hay and shin and they spell out the acronym that translates to mean “a great miracle happened there.” what is less well-known is that these same letters were used in European countries by the Jewish Yiddish-speaking communities who would also use these letters on their spinning tops because these letters corresponded to the rules of the dreidel game (nun=nichts=nothing, gimel=ganz=everything, hey=halb=half and shin=stell ein=put one in).
- The Ethiopian Jewish community as well as some of the Indian Jewish community only started celebrating Hanukkah recently as their communities split off from the Jewish community before Hanukkah had been established by the Sages as a holiday!
- In 1839, thousands of Jewish people fled from the religious persecution of the Muslim authorities in Persia and settled in Afghanistan. Some of them had to hide their Jewish identity in Afghanistan and as a result when Hanukkah would come around they would light little plates of oil in place of a Menorah so that if a neighbor would stop by they could disperse the plates throughout the house and essentially make the Menorah disappear.
- The Moroccan Jewish community ate neither potato latkes nor jelly donuts on Hanukkah- they would prepare Sfenj donuts which were made using the zest and juice of an orange.