Unique Ways Chanukah is Celebrated Worldwide

Chanukah is the Jewish Christmas. Let’s face it. How many times have we found ourselves in situations where we clumsily explain our Jewish holiday. Christmas can be an awkward time of year for Jews. So maybe we overcompensate with presents and get caught up in “the spirit of the season” but we also know that Chanukah is so much more than a Jewish response to a world obsessed with Christmas.

The real meaning of Chanukah is not about giving presents. It is about celebrating heroism, courage and religious freedom. And when it comes to heros and holiday symbols, Judah Maccabee far surpasses Santa Claus as a role model.

The spirit and meaning of Chanukah took on new meaning when Israel became a state. The early Israeli settlers saw themselves as modern day Maccabees and they rallied around the symbolism of Chanukah. Each year on the first day of Chanukah, athletes gather at the graves of the Maccabees in Modin. They light a torch there and begin a relay race, handing it off from one to another, until the torch arrives in Jerusalem where the President lights the menorah at the Presidential Palace. The torch is also taken to Mount Zion where it is used to light menorahs in memory of Holocaust victims.

The traditional Chanukah food in Israeli is sufganiyot, fried jelly-filled doughnuts. In 1997, near the Israeli town of Afula, a 12 foot high pyramid consisting of 6,400 sufganiyot was erected in an attempt to get into the Guinness Book of Records.

In an equally remarkable undertaking that same year, a 60 foot tall menorah weighing 17 metric tons was built in the town of Latrun. Each night of the holiday, a rabbi had to be lifted by crane to light the candles. Menorahs in public places and public candle lighting ceremonies are becoming more prevalent throughout the world. Lighting the National Menorah in Washington is an occasion attended even by the US President. In New York City’s Central Park a 32 foot high menorah is lit each year, also with the help of a crane.

In their attempt to reach out to Jews and spread the message of religious freedom the Lubavitch are behind many of these ceremonies, including two local events. This is the 13th year that the Canadian Friends of Chabad Lubavitch have organized a menorah-lighting ceremony on Parliament Hill. The Ottawa Torah Chabad is hosting the 5th annual Chanukah celebration at the former city hall on Centrepointe Drive. Last year over 200 people attended this popular event.

As they have done with other Jewish holidays, communities throughout the world and throughout time have given meaning to Chanukah with their own unique rituals and customs. Many Sephardic Chanukah traditions differ from the Ashkenazic. In a Sephardic home only the head of the household lights the Chanukah candles. Contrary to the Ashkenazic way, the shamash is lit last and is not used to light the other candles.

Jews from the Syrian town of Aleppo light an extra shamash candle every night of Chanukah as a gesture of thanks to their country for giving a home to their ancestors when they were expelled from Spain. Turkish Jews make candles from the flax fibers used to wrap the etrog. The remains of these Chanukah candles are then melted together to make another candle used to search for bread crumbs pre-Passover.

Many Sephardic Chanu-kah traditions focus on children and on charity. In Kurdistan and Iraq, children would make an effigy of Antiochus and carry it from door to door collecting food donations. The effigy is thrown into a bonfire on the last day of Chanukah. Children in Yemen are given a coin each day to buy sugar and a red powder that is used to make a wine-like beverage which they drink at a giant evening feast.

Chanukah has special meaning for Sephardic women. For them the heroes of Chanukah are Hannah, who watched her seven sons die because they would not bow down to idols, and Judith, who severed the head of the cruel Greek ruler causing the enemy soldiers to flee. In their honour, women do not work while the Chanukah candles are lit. Instead of eating foods fried in oil on Chanukah, Sephardim eat dairy food to remember that Judith defeated the Greek tyrant because she fed him cheese and wine until he fell asleep.

Since Chanukah is not a holy day, some Jews do not celebrate it all. Abera Minywab did not know about Chanukah until she immigrated to Israel from Ethopia. In Soviet Russia, lighting candles was a conspicuous religious act that few Jews would risk. Even if they wanted to celebrate Chanukah, it was against the law to manufacture and sell candles.

No account of holiday traditions would be complete without a heartwarming story about celebrations during the Holocaust. In 1943, the inmates at Bergen-Belsen were determined to celebrate Chanukah. The men saved scraps of fat from their food rations to make candles and the women pulled threads from their clothes and twisted them into wicks. Half of a raw potato became the menorah. This courageous act honouring the courageous acts of our ancestors must have given them strength and hope. That is the essence of Chanukah.

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