Letter from Israel: Chanukah here is the bigger deal

Letter from Israel: Chanukah here is the bigger deal

A dreidel is projected on the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City in a nightly light show. (© Daniel Santacruz)
A dreidel is projected on the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City in a nightly light show. (© Daniel Santacruz)

Last week I went to a press event at the Jerusalem International YMCA (which Israelis endearingly call “Imka”). A huge Christmas tree stood by the entrance, and colored lights festooned the lobby along with “Merry Christmas” signs.

I stopped and stared. After 11 years in Israel, I find Christmas displays oddly exotic.

Israeli Christians make up about 2 percent of the population. That’s a tiny minority (though not as tiny a minority as American Jews — here we’re about 1.4 percent).

Sufganiot in a bakery in Machane Yehuda market. (© Daniel Santacruz)

During my 48 years in that teeny-tiny minority, I was accustomed to Santa and carols at the mall, reindeer and sleighs on roofs, crèches and Christmas trees in town squares — occasionally positioned next to a large menorah, courtesy of the local Chabad.

I was used to seeing annual articles on how to help Jewish children deal with Christmas envy. I was inured to “Jingle Bells” on the car radio and to the blizzard of toy and electronics ads.

The colorful Christmas sights and sounds that defined my December reality for all those years fast faded away, replaced by the Chanukah sights and sounds that saturate the Jewish homeland this time of year.

Lighting the menorah on top of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation building in the Kotel plaza, in Jerusalem’s Old City, is an annual event attended by politicians and rabbis. (© Daniel Santacruz)

On holiday evenings, people set up menorahs (chanukiot, as they are called here) outside their front door in glass boxes to keep the wind from extinguishing the flames. It’s a very public way of “spreading the miracle” and the light.

With children off from school, Israeli shopping malls offer kiddie entertainment and arts-and-crafts workshops with a holiday theme. When the sun goes down, the menorah-lighting ceremonies begin, even in this most crassly commercial of locales.

A friend texted from our local mall tonight that she saw three candle-lightings within 30 minutes: one in the supermarket, one at the children’s show, and one at the juice bar. The person leading the blessings and lightings isn’t necessarily a rabbi or even religiously observant — just a proud Israeli Jew.

The menorah at the Kotel develops its own glow of illumination. (© Daniel Santacruz)

Another friend sent me a photo of a giant dreidel installation at the Tel Aviv Port, also the annual setting for the world’s largest menorah. There are Chanukah concerts and candle-lighting ceremonies every night throughout this most hip and secular of Israeli cities.

Perhaps the most prominent sign of the eight-day holiday here is sufganiot — filled doughnuts. Like American stores hanging Christmas decorations as soon as Halloween (another forgotten holiday!) is over, Israel’s bakeries begin churning out these calorically catastrophic Chanukah belly bombs right after Simchat Torah.

While purists prefer the traditional strawberry jam-filled sufganiot, part of the Chanukah fun in Israel is sampling outlandish fillings and toppings.

These dreidels are part of an installation at the Port of Tel Aviv. (Viva Sarah Press)

The Roladin bakery chain is known as the king of crazy sufganiot, served with “chaser” syringes of extra flavor to inject just before eating. This year the 13 Roladin selections really are over the top: For example, Violet Cheesecake with cream cheese filling, whipped cream, and purple crumb topping with a blueberry chaser; and Yellow Sunrise with mascarpone cream, mango-pineapple marmalade, chocolate lace, whipped cream, coconut flakes, and pineapple cubes.

What about latkes, you may ask.

Well, for starters, if you say “latke” in Israel you’ll get a blank stare. The traditional fried potato pancakes are called “livivot” and they are not nearly as popular as their oily brothers, sufganiot.

Many Israelis light menorahs in front of their houses; the glass boxes shield flames from the wind. This is a view of Cardo Street in Jerusalem’s Old City. (© Daniel Santacruz)

Personally, I’d much rather wolf down a hot, fragrant latke (or four or five) than a sickeningly sweet doughnut doused in powdered sugar. Livivot are best prepared at home, and even if you want to buy them, you have to hunt around for one. Last year I strolled through Jerusalem’s Machane Yehuda market and counted about 15 bakeries hawking sufganiot and only one single appetizing store offering livivot.

In fact, unless you’re in the kitchen of an immigrant from the West, where piles of potatoes and onions are getting grated and fried, it may be easier to find a Christmas tree than a latke.

It’s important to emphasize that anyone seeking a Christmas experience in Israel can find it, especially in cities such as Jerusalem, Nazareth, Haifa, and, of course, Bethlehem. Thousands of Christian tourists flock here from all corners of the globe to do just that.

In the Christian Quarter of the Old City, it’s not a rare sight to see nuns and Santas shopping for stocking-stuffers. And the municipality sponsors a pine-tree giveaway every December for Christian residents.

But this is the only country on the face of the earth where Chanukah is the dominant December holiday. That’s a pretty cool feeling for a Jew from the diaspora.

Wishing you a happy Festival of Lights from the land where Chanukah began, and where freedom of worship continues to be a cherished right.

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