Looking to make this year’s Hanukkah celebrations extra special? Get inspired by these holiday traditions from Jewish communities around the world.
Most Ashkenazi Jews place a menorah in the window to publicize the miracle of Hanukkah. In Morocco, Algeria and other North African communities, it is customary to hang the menorah on a hook in the doorway. Putting the menorah near the mezuzah was thought to enhance the protection already offered by the mezuzah. If you look at menorahs made in North Africa, you will notice that many have a ring at the top, as well as a flat metal backing, so that the menorah could be safely hung.
Jews in Romania, as well as Austria and other central European communities, would scrape out potatoes, filling each with oil and a wick to serve as the menorah. Rather than putting all eight out at once, each day they would add another potato. While the origin of this custom is unclear, it likely came about due to economic struggles.
Lighting an Extra Shamash
The Jewish community of Aleppo, comprised mostly of descendants of Sephardic Jews expelled from Spain in 1492, lit an extra Shamash on each night of Hanukkah. Several explanations exist — some say that the second shamash was meant to honour God and acknowledge the divine intervention that brought them to safety. Others say the custom was a nod toward the non-Jews of Aleppo, who welcomed them as refugees.
Glass Boxes on Display
Before mass immigration and the establishment of the State of Israel, Jews lived in Jerusalem for centuries and followed the belief that the menorah’s lights needed to be placed outside the home so that all could see.
However, Jerusalem winters are often wet and windy, so the community began crafting aquarium-like glass boxes to protect their flames. Inside, Jerusalem Jews put small cups of olive oil and lit a wick to correspond with each night. Some of Jerusalem’s oldest homes even have a shelf carved out of the home’s exterior walls to place the glass boxes in.
In their cooking, Cubans use plantains in much the same way Americans and Canadians use potatoes: mashing them, baking them, and frying them. It should not come as a surprise, then, that Cuban Jews make plantain latkes, otherwise known as tostones or patacones, for their Hanukkah celebrations.
Neighbourhood Wine Tastings
In the wine-making region of Avignon in the south of France, it is customary to end the Shabbat that falls during Hanukkah by opening a new bottle or cask of wine. After Havdalah, Jews would travel around the neighbourhood to various homes, tasting the wines and toasting the holiday. This is a fantastic way to build community and celebrate the holiday with family and friends.
A Different Spin on The Dreidel
In Spanish, Hanukkah is known as Januca or Lucenarias – the feast of lights. Mexican children play a game called toma todo (winner takes all), which is similar to the version of dreidel that we play except the top has six sides instead of four. The toma toda dreidel is known as a pirinola. For a true multi-cultural experience, Mexican Jews often break a dreidel-shaped piñata filled with Hanukkah trinkets and treats.
From Tisha B’Av To Chanukah
On Tisha B’Av we read the Book of Lamentations, often in complete darkness. There is an Italian custom of saving the candle that was used to help us read on Tisha B’Av to help us light the menorah during Chanukah.
On Tisha B’Av, we mourn the destruction of the Holy Temple; on Hanukkah, we celebrate its rededication. Using the same candle for both occasions connects the two events: On Tisha B’Av we are sad, but on Hanukkah we rejoice as we rekindle this same light as the shamash for our festival of freedom.
An Unusual Way to Get Some Gelt
Although there is no longer a distinguishable population of Jews in Kurdistan, many Kurdish Jews still observe two unusual Hanukkah customs. The first is similar to giving gelt but with a twist: a week before the holiday, children lock the doors to their rooms. Their parents must give them coins to gain entry. The second custom was developed by Jews too poor to afford a hanukkiyah. They used eggshells as cups for wicks and oil, lighting the required number of cracked shells every night.
Day of The Shamash
Jews in Morocco extended the joy of Hanukkah into a ninth day, which became known as “the day of the shamash”. On that day, children would go from house to house collecting leftover Hanukkah candles. Then they would make a giant bonfire, dancing and singing around it, and jumping and leaping over it.
It was believed that jumping over the fire could bring good luck. Single women would jump over the fire in the hopes of getting married. Married women struggling to conceive would jump over the fire in the hopes of being blessed with a child.
Festival of the Daughters
The seventh day of Hanukkah coincides with the beginning of the Hebrew month of Tevet, which has become a holiday within a holiday for Tunisian Jews and those in Libya, Algeria, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Morocco, Greece, and Yemen.
Known as Chag haBanot (Festival of the Daughters), girls and women celebrate the courageous act of Yehudit, the Jewish woman who saved the Jewish nation by killing the general sent by Antiochus, the evil ruler of the Syrian-Greek Empire.
In celebration of the day, women do no work and instead visit each other, eating doughnuts and honey cookies. The holiday is particularly special for young women engaged to be married in the coming year.
-Susan Inhaber, NML Commisioner