In the rest of the world, Hanukkah sometimes gets lumped in there with Christmas because they both fall in December and involve gift-giving, but in Israel Hanukkah is in its own stratosphere as the entire country comes alive for eight days to celebrate with unique traditions, tasty foods, parties and cultural events.
However, as fun as it is to simply take part in all the festivities, it’s also beneficial to know the story behind the traditions and celebrations, so here is a short recap.
History of Hanukkah
About 2,100 years ago, the land of Israel, then known as Judea, was ruled by the Seleucids (Greek-Syrians), who sought to Hellenize the people of Israel. However, a small band of faithful Jews rose up against the Sleucids and beat the odds by defeating the mighty Greek army to take back control of the territory and the Jewish Temple.
Hoping to light the Temple’s menorah, they found only a single cruse of olive oil that had escaped contamination by the Greeks. This bit of oil should have only kept the menorah lit for one day. However, seemingly by miracle, this one-day supply burned for eight days until new oil could be prepared under conditions of ritual purity.
The holiday is meant mainly to commemorate the victory over the Greeks, but most of the traditions are derived from the miracle of the oil.
If you’re out and about in Tel Aviv, or anywhere in Israel, during Hanukkah you’ll undoubtedly notice the Hanukkah candles atop the large Jewish Menorahs (9-branched candelabra) set up in various public places throughout the country as well as the smaller menorahs in the windows of many businesses, restaurants and private homes.
In Hebrew, the Jewish menorah is called the hanukkia, and Jewish people light its candles each night of the holiday to commemorate the miracle of the oil. You start with two on the first night, and each night of the holiday you light an extra candle until the eighth night, when all the candles are lit.
While most light the light their menorahs at home, the tradition has also become a social event around Israel, as people gather in parks throughout the cities for public lightings and sing-alongs. Even if you don’t know the songs, it’s worth checking out for the experience and the possibility of free sufganiyot (donuts with fillings), which are actually part of another tradition – food.
Even weeks before the holiday, bakeries, grocery stores and supermarkets start stocking their shelves with the traditional Hanukkah foods, namely sufganiyot and latkes (potato pancakes).
During the eight days, you probably won’t go more than a few minutes without seeing somebody munching on a sufganiya. These tasty donuts come with almost every imaginable filling, topping and design combination.
During Hanukkah cities throughout the country, especially Tel Aviv, take on a carnival-like atmosphere.
Watch out for street fairs during the day and parties in the nights, both on the streets and in clubs and bars.
Hanukkah for kids
Hanukkah is also a lively holiday for kids and families because the schools all have vacation for the holiday. There are plenty of interesting and fun activities for children and teenagers, like special shows and performances at the cinema and theater and exhibitions and activities at museums and cultural centers.