PART III: TRADITIONAL AND CONTEMPORARY CUSTOMS CHAPTER 7: AROUND THE WORLD

  1. Who are Ashkenazi Jews?

A: Ashkenaz was the name given to Central Europe, dominated by Germany. The plural noun Ashkenazim became generalized to apply to all Jews of Central or Eastern European descent.

  1. Who are Sephardi Jews?

A: Sfarad is the Hebrew for Spain, and the Sephardim are those Jews who can trace their origins to the Iberian Peninsula before the expulsion by the Inquisition in 1492. With some exceptions, Ashkenazim lived in Christian countries, and Sephardim in Moslem ones. Israeli culture is a mixture of both, with Sephardi customs often predominating.

  1. But don’t they observe the same Judaism?

A: It depends on what is meant by “the same Judaism.” The core beliefs are the same, but the traditions and cultural observances are different. Even within the mainly Ashkenazi  religious denominations, there are differences – Hasidic, modern Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Reform, Renewal, Humanistic Jews all have their own interpretations of tradition. As noted above (question #50), in general, Ashkenazim are from Christian countries and Sephardim are from Moslem ones. The broader milieu in which these Jews lived influenced their customs not just for Hanukah but for other aspects of Jewish life and observance.

  1. How is Chanukah celebrated by Ashkenazi Jews?

     A:  Ashkenazi Jews take their cue from Zechariah 2:14-4:7, the special haftarah for the Sabbath during Chanukah, which begins with the words “sing and rejoice.” Chanukah is celebrated with social activities, singing, games, dances, gambling (allowed only on this holiday; questions #58-60), festive foods (questions #63-70). It was customary to donate a portion of any gambling winnings to tzedakah, charity, and children were encouraged to donate some of their monetary gifts.

54How is Chanukah celebrated by Sephardi Jews?

A. Most of the customs are the same, although there are differences in foods and, of course, the popular folk songs and the languages in which they are sung. Cheese and jelly donuts are more popular than latkes, for example, although those are made with ingredients other than potatoes (questions #63-70). Another difference is how the candles are lit. According to some Sephardic sages, only the head of the household may light the candles, with the family watching, and the Shamash is lit last and not used to light the other candles, which are lit by individual matches or by a separate candle that is not part of the chanukiah.

hanukkah-in-the-middle-ages
18th Century Woodcut (from Google)

    55. How was Chanukah celebrated in the Middle Ages?

    A: Chanukah was a popular festival in all cultures during the Middle Ages. The chanukiah was lit in Jewish homes, special foods were served, gifts of money were exchanged, dreidels and card games were played.

Jews in different countries also had their own customs. In Yemen, for example, Jewish women wore clothes decorated with bells. After the lighting of the candles, they would go out into the street and play music udsing hand bells. In Libya mothers sent their married daughters spanj (doughnuts); families would also give spanj  to the elders of the synagogue and to school-aged children. In Tunisia, the chanukiah would remain in the entrance of the home from of Chanukah until Purim. Jews in Venice would row gondolas through their neighborhoods to greet their friends with song. The Jews who fled the Spanish Inquisition and settled in who Aleppo in northern Syria, lit an extra candle to celebrate the additional miracle of having survived.

  1. How is Chanukah celebrated in modern Israel?

    A: Ironically, Chanukah isn’t celebrated as lavishly in Israel, where the events commemorated by the holiday took place, as in the United States, where it competes with Christmas (question #. 16). But it is celebrated joyously and publicly, with large chanukiot on top of government buildings and in parks. Chanukah lights are supposed to be able to be seen from the outside, so many homes have special stone niches outside their homes for their chanukiot.

In addition to special foods and parties and the giving of small gifts and chocolate coins to children, some families visit historical sites in Jerusalem and Modi’in.  Arts-and-crafts workshops, concerts, theater and dance performances are common.

On the day before the first candle, there is also an annual Chanukah Torch Relay from Modi’in to the Western Wall (Kotel) in Jerusalem.. People line the route and pass a burning torch from hand to hand. The torch is then used to light the chanukiah at the Western Wall.

  1. How is Chanukah celebrated in the U.S.?

     A: In the United States, Chanukah has become known as the “Jewish Christmas.” People light candles and exchange gifts, but not the small tokens of coins and sweets. Children expect eight nights of major gifts, so they can compare their haul with their Christian friends. The false equivalency of Chanukah and Christmas has been encouraged by retailers, with blue-and-white decorations taken their place beside red-and-green ones, with Santa Claus playing with a dreidel. The misrepresentation of Chanukah is obvious in many supermarkets which mistakenly advertise sales on matzah (the unleavened bread eaten on Passover) to celebrate Chanukah. (Chapter 10, questions #73-80, discuss the topic in more detail.)

  1. How is Chanukah celebrated today in other countries?

 A:  Jews in India, use wicks dipped in coconut oil light rather than candles. They also hang the chanukiah on a hook on the side of the door across from the mezuzah.

In Yemen and some North African countries, the seventh night honors Hannah (question #11) and is dedicated to women.

In Istanbul, Jews sing a song commemorating the eight menorah candles called “Ocho Candelas.”

In Alsace, a region of France, two-tiered chanukiot with space for 16 lights are sometimes used, so  parents and children can each lit their own lights in one single menorah.

As in India, Jews in Morocco and Algeria also hang the  suspended from a hook on a wall near the doorway.

In the Soviet Union, the celebration of Jewish holidays was forbidden. (Aside: In December, 1980, my husband, Rabbi Gary M. Gans, and I were sent undercover to Moscow and what was then called Leningrad to meet with Refusniks, Jews who were persecuted for wanting exit visas to move to Israel. In addition to leading some Hebrew classes, we also smuggled in small, tin chanukiot for them.) Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russian Jews are able to celebrate the holidays more openly. For example, the Chief Rabbi of Moscow begins the holiday by lighting  a   in a park near the Kremlin. There are public chanukiot are in other cities, too.

In Germany, a   is lit on the first night in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, the site of anti-Semetic Nazi rallies. In addition to the customs celebrated in other countries – giving gifts, visiting friends and relatives, enjoying special foods and music – Jews in use the leftover candle wicks to build bonfires.

In South America, Chanukah falls in the summer. Jews there celebrate by visiting friends, frequenting Jewish restaurants, and, as elsewhere, lighting candles and exchanging gifts.