As a Jew with North African roots, I have always felt that my culture’s rich and diverse traditions set me apart from my peers and classmates. On Pesach, I have always felt grateful that rice and hummus found their way into every meal and felt sympathy for my Ashkenazi friends who tried to feel satiated on potatoes. Mizrahi seder tables included hitting one another with leeks or green onions and rotating a plate of matza around someone’s head while singing “Ha Lachma Anya.” While most of my classmates celebrated Rosh HaShanah with only apples and honey, Mizrahi Jews also celebrate the New Year with dates, beets, and fish’s or lamb’s head. However, on Hannukah, there was nothing that separated me from my Ashkenazi friends. My mom fried latkes, we stuffed ourselves with jelly-filled donuts, played with dreidels and lit the Hannukiah. Much to my dismay, the only thing that set me apart from my peers was that I didn’t receive eight nights of gifts. According to my mom, “that isn’t our custom.”
When I moved to Israel after college, I intentionally sought out as much information as I could about my Mizrahi heritage. Yet, even in Israel, it felt like Middle Eastern and North African Jews preferred to celebrate Hannukah with only the customs that were consistent across the country, rather than those they brought with them from their communities. During my first year in Israel, I wasn’t able to learn more than a few Sephardic songs about Hannukah and that some North African Jews preferred calling sufganyot “spanj”.
It wasn’t until I immersed myself in the writings of Sephardic rabbis at a Sephardic Beit Midrash in Jerusalem called Mimizrach Shemesh, that I was exposed to the rich Hannukah tradition of Jews from North Africa and the Middle East. For example, it was customary for Yemenite Jewish women to wear clothing decorated with bells and hold bells in their hand. After the lighting of the candles, they would go out into the street and play music using the bells to celebrate the miracle of Hannukah. In Turkey, it was customary to eat dairy products in memory of the miracle that happened when Judith tempted Holofernes with cheese and wine. In Libya mothers sent their married daughters spanj (Libyan Doughnuts) and families bring the elders of the synagogue and the children in Jewish schools spanj. In Tunisia the Hannukiah would hang in the entrance of the home from the time of Hannukah until Purim.
Moreover, the Mizrachi rabbinic literature suggests a way to think about not only the rituals of the holiday but the way in which we should be focusing our celebrations. In the early 20th century, Moroccan Rabbi Yosef Messas received a letter from a Jew who had become skeptical of the Hannukah oil miracle story because he couldn’t find a written source that attested to its authenticity. In his response, Messas strongly rejected the idea that a written source was the only way to prove something as authoritative and accurate. Messas argued that the home, and specifically the teachings of the parents, were of equal importance to the written Rabbinic laws. He wrote that the “love and care that parents build with their children” creates a source of authority. Parents, he wrote, “teach stories to their offspring that pass on from generation to generation,” and these stories are on equal standing with written traditions. In this response, Messas highlights the authority and importance of parents in passing on Hannukah traditions and locates the home as the center of authority in this holiday.
Rabbi Haim David Halevi a 20th century Sephardic rabbi who served as the chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv argued that it was more important for all family members to be present during the lighting of the Hannukiah than for the Hannukiah to be lit in a timely manner. He wrote that such a lighting in the home is the “miracle of our time.”
It seems to me that Hannukah has lost the variety of traditions that characterize other Jewish holidays like Pesach or Rosh HaShanah. We should no longer exclusively rely on our schools and synagogues to preserve the diversity of our Jewish traditions. Rather, the home should be the place where all the varied ways of celebration are passed on and preserved and the traditions will continue to be the way we preserve the home.
This teaching is based on what I studied at Mizrach Shemesh a Beit Midrash and center for social activism in Jerusalem. For more visit mizrach.org.il
More than anything Nalugya Rehema wanted to be a mother. She was very happy when she got pregnant, but she lost the baby. She became pregnant again, but again she lost the baby. Five times she became pregnant, five times she lost the baby. She went to the local herbalist. She sold her cow to pay for treatments that did not help. Her husband threatened to leave her. Her life seemed hopeless.
The miracle of Hanukkah is bringing light to places of darkness. Unlike most parts of the world, the winter is not a dark time in Uganda. Because we are at the Equator, there are 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of darkness all year round. We do not crave sunlight. But like people everywhere, we crave spiritual light. We crave hope. We crave possibilities. Hanukkah represents the possibilities. When we light the Hanukkah candles we remember that there is hope. And we are supposed to share this hope. This is called pirsum haness, publicizing the miracle. This is why we put our Hanukkiyah with our lit candles in a public place so everyone, no matter their religion, can share in the hope and light of the holiday.
The Abayudaya Jews of Uganda believe in sharing the miracles in our lives with all our neighbors. We built wells so that there will be clean water not only for Jews but for Muslims and Christians too. We have distributed mosquito nets to the entire community and in the last four years there have been no deaths from malaria. And the Tobin Health Center is open to everyone, regardless of religion.
Like the Hanukkah miracle, we publicize these miracles. We hold community forums. We have advertisements on the radio.
This is how Nalugya Rehema heard about the Tobin Health Center—on the radio. She met with Dr. Baniru Masaba. He found that the problem was with a rhesus blood incompatability. Dr. Masaba was able to treat her and she got pregnant. With his help during the pregnancy, she gave birth to a healthy baby boy.
She named him Gift.
Gift is now 2 and a half years old. Nalugya Rehema is a good mother but she needs to work. There are no childcare centers in our area, only in the capital. Gift cannot go to school until he is seven years old which is hard for the family. Again they need a miracle.
We are planning to build a childcare center for mothers and children like Nalugya and Gift. A facility for young children will mean that they will be safe and healthy, with access to proper nutrition. Their mothers will be able to pursue careers, help support their families, and play a part in the economic health of the community.
Hanukkah literally means rededication. We are rededicating our commitment to women and children by building a childcare center in 2015. The on-going support of Be’chol Lashon and all of our friends around the world is a miracle that allows us to improve our lives in Africa.
Who doesn’t love a holiday party? Adding a global theme to this year’s celebrations can both to add to the festivities and the educational elements of the holiday, bringing in new elements that both surprise and challenge accepted ideas of the holiday. A global theme allows for as much or as little guest participation as you might like. It can be extravagant or relatively simple depending on your approach to entertaining. Either way, a global approach to Hanukkah reminds us that the light of the holiday reaches Jews in every corner of the world.
Serve a global fried food feast. The small jug of oil, that instead of burning for one night miraculously burned for 8 nights has inspired generations of fried foods. The latkes with which are most commonly associated with Hanukkah highlight the many years during which Jewish life flourished in cold European climates where the winter months were often a steady diet of potatoes. But Jewish life extends far beyond that historic reality. There is not a region in the world where Jews have not lived, and so, any fried food is fair game for Hanukkah fare. Try these Cuban Frituras de Malanga or these Colombian Patacones or these Moroccan Sfenj.
Don’t feel like cooking and cleaning? Order in! Most ethnic take-outs have fried foods on their menus making it easy to order up a worldly feast. Egg Rolls, Pakoras, Samosas, Taquitos, Falafel, Fried Chicken, Churros and Fried Wontons can easily round out a menu. Have them delivered or have guests pick them up.
Overwhelmed by fried food? Add a sampling of Jewish dishes from around the world. Try the Natasha Cooper-Benisty’s Moroccan Carrot Salad or Francesca Biller’s Grandma Hatsuyo’s “Yummy” Chicken Udon Noodle Soup. Better yet, have guests bring favorite global dishes, with cards explaining the origins of the dishes and highlighting the country they came from.
Play global games. The dreidl (Yiddish for spinning top) borrows from an English and German spinning top game. So why not bring in tops from around the world? Most global fair trade stores have an array tops made in different countries. Or order online. Have a contest to see which spins the longest. Or go the Mexican celebration route and do a Hanukkah piñata. Close your eyes, spin a globe and flag bingo. Make your own cards or print these. Look up the countries on the web and learn about their Jewish connections!
Give global Jewish gifts. There are many Jewish communities around the world that make handicrafts to help support their communities. Kippot or neckaces from Uganda or challah covers from Ghanna, for example, make wonderful gifts and also forge a global connection.
Add an educational element. Learn about global Jewish Hanukkah traditions and history. Make your own version of an Afgani Hanukkah menorah (see global Jewish Hanukkah traditions.) Have people learn and share about Jewish life in other countries like Uganda, Greece, Iran.
Wherever you live and however you celebrate, may Hanukkah be a holiday of joy and light for all!
Hanukkah is observed with joy and celebration in Jewish communities around the world. There are 8 nights of lights and blessings the world over but there are also many ways different communities make the holiday uniquely their own. Here are 8 customs and ideas to help you make your celebration just a little more global.
1) In Alsace, a region of France, double-decker Hanukkah menorahs were common with space for 16 lights. The two levels, each with spots for 8 lights, allowed fathers and sons to join together as they each lit their own lights in one single menorah.
2) There is a custom of placing your menorah in a place where people will be able to view the lights burning and appreciate the miracle of the holiday. In some Jerusalem neighborhoods, there are spaces cut into the sides of buildings so people can display them outside. Historically in countries like Morroco and Algeria, and even some communities in India, it was customary to hang a menorah on a hook on a wall near the doorway on the side of the door across from the mezuzah.
3) In Yemenite and North African Jewish communities, the seventh night of Hanukkah is set aside as a particular women’s holiday commemorating Hannah whose sacrificed seven sons rather than give in to the Greek pressure to abandon Jewish practice and in honor or Judith, whose seduction and assassination of Holofernes, the Assyrian emperor Nebuchadnezzar’s top general, led to Jewish military victory.
4) Gift giving at Hannukah time is primarily a North American custom, but it is easy to make it global by gifting Jewish items made around the world like hand made necklaces from Uganda, challah covers from Ghana or kippot from China.
5) In Santa Marta, Colombia, Chavurah Shirat Hayyam a new Jewish community, has started their own traditional Hanukkah recipe, instead of eating fried potato latkes, they eat Patacones, or fried plantains.
6) The Ethiopian and parts of Indian Jewish communities split off from the larger Jewish community in ancient time before Hanukkah was established as a Jewish holiday. They only began celebrating Hanukkah in modern times, when their communities were reunited with other Jewish communities.
7) In 1839, thousands of Jews fled Persia, where the Muslim authorities began forcibly converting them, and settled in Afghanistan. While some of them lived openly as Jews, others hid their Jewish identity. When Hanukkah time came around they would not light a special menorah, for fear it would attract the notice of Muslim neighbors. Instead they would fill little plates with oil and set them near each other. If neighbors stopped by, they could simply make the menorah disappear by spreading the plates around the house.
8) The rich culinary traditions of the Moroccan Jewish community know not of potato latkes or jelly doughnuts. Rather they favor the citrusy flavors of the Sfenj doughnut, which was made with the juice, and zest of an orange. Notably, from the early days of nation building in Israel, the orange came to be associated with the holiday of Hanukkah as the famed Jaffa oranges came into season in time for the holiday celebrations.