It’s Beginning to Look a Lot like Chanukah…

Before I proceed to today’s post I would like to bring your attention to my guest appearance on yesterday’s episode of Jewish Geography, a new podcast created by my dear husband. 馃槈 He聽knew I had a draft of Sunday’s post sitting around, but that I was hesitant to post it because I knew it would be controversial and widely shared and… you know I have an aversion to opening cans聽of worms 馃槢 (I was right, too. 馃槈 )聽But he was making a podcast about Jewish sexuality and聽encouraged me to finish and post it so I could read an excerpt for him. So I did!

Check it out, enjoy his deep, soothing voice, subscribe (it’s聽on iTunes), leave him a 5-star rating and a gushing review, hire him for your next tour to Israel, etc. 馃槢

And now… back to our regularly scheduled programming.


Dear Josep,

“Holiday season” in the USA聽is in December, 聽and the houses, streets and storefronts start to put up their Christmas decorations right after Thanksgiving (if not before). I remember what it felt like to be a little Jewish girl amongst all the tinsel, holly, lights, trees, carols, and Nativity scenes. In a word: uncomfortable.

One of the great things about moving to Israel was that come December, there was little to no evidence of the existence of Christmas. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a beautiful holiday with a lot of lovely traditions… but it’s not mine, and there was something liberating about not having it blaring at me from every radio, street corner, and display window. The acknowledgement we get in a generic “happy holidays” greeting or a symbolic menorah here or there is a nice gesture, but honestly, for me, it just emphasizes our minority status.

Galus, as we say in Yiddish. (Yiddishized Hebrew for “Diaspora.”)

The fact is that Chanukah is not that important a holiday as Jewish holidays go. It is well known among non-Jews just because of its timing. Our real “holiday season” is September-October with all the Tishrei madness (Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Succot, and Shmini Atzeret). Still, there’s something very charming about a winter holiday, and Chanukah is a very sweet one as holidays go. I’ll be elaborating on Chanukah itself in a later post; today I want to write about the Israeli answers聽to all the holly, trees, candy canes… and these things.

Yes. Don't think I've forgotten about these. "Caga Ti贸" by Valerie Hinojosa [CC BY SA 2.0]
Yes. Don’t think I’ve forgotten about these.1Caga Ti贸” by Valerie Hinojosa [CC BY SA 2.0]

1) Sufganiyot

Remember these?


These are the fancy-shmancy filled doughnuts, a.k.a. sufganiyot,聽of the Roladin bakery chain. Roladin is聽renowned for its “gourmet” sufganiyot. As I told you when we were at聽the Roladin on Mamilla last year, I personally think they’re overrated and overpriced. But you tried one, so you can be the judge of that.

In any case, the traditional filling is strawberry jam, but chocolate and caramel are also common.

These are the classic kind.
Classic jelly sufganiyot

These things start to appear in bakeries and supermarkets shortly after Succot (on par with聽the obscenely early Christmas decorations in the USA).聽The miracle in the Chanukah story聽involved oil,聽and we have traditionally used this as an excuse to consume food containing liberal amounts of the stuff. Sufganiyot are deep-fried, so they make the cut. The traditional Ashkenazi food is latkes, fried potato pancakes, with applesauce and/or sour cream, but those are best served crispy and fresh from the pan and most people prefer to make them at home.

2) Chanukah聽Accoutrement

The second thing to appear in the stores is, of course, the equipment required for Chanukah.

photo 1 (1)
The entrance aisle at the Rami Levy supermarket of the [now infamous…] Gush Etzion Junction. (Infamous because of the frequent attacks聽there. The last incident聽was an attempted stabbing yesterday morning. Needless to say, it was swarming with soldiers and everybody was on high alert, but it was just as busy as usual.)
Chanukiyot (also called menorahs–click here to learn about the distinction between the two…), Chanukah-themed candies and treats, candles of all kinds… and oil.聽Oil for frying (sufganiyot and latkes), oil for lighting…

oil everywhere

3) Things That Spin

Remember when we were in that store where you bought your mezuza case, and you spotted these things (I think they may actually have been literally identical to the ones in this picture), and asked me what they were? And I was so out of practice, and so much less articulate in speech than I am in writing, that I was just like, “It’s… a thing… and you spin it… and you put in… and it…”

"Colorful dreidels2" by Adiel lo - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.
Colorful dreidels2” by Adiel loOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

These are called “dreidels” in Yiddish or “sevivonim” in Hebrew, and they have become associated with Chanukah in a rather roundabout fashion. What we are told as kids is that Jews would study聽Torah in hiding, in defiance of the Romans (under whom it was illegal), and they had a kid stand聽watch, and when the kid would warn them that the Roman聽officials were coming, they would take out these little spinning tops, pretending to have been playing with them all along. Cute story; probably not true. (Though I absolutely 100% believe the studying Torah in hiding in defiance of the Romans聽part. See item #4 of “The 5 Secrets of Israeli Resilience Against Terror”…) They also tell us that the Hebrew letters on each side of the dreidel stand for聽Nes Gadol Haya Sham–“a great miracle happened there”–or, in Israel,聽Nes Gadol Haya Po–“a great miracle happened here.” Also cute… also not true. (I’m probably ruining all my Jewish readers’ childhoods here… sorry!)

The inconvenient聽truth is that the dreidel probably does not have a Jewish source at all. In this article, Rabbi David Golonkin explains that there was a game involving spinning tops that was popular in England around Christmastime, that was referenced in the 16th century under the name “totum,” which means “all” in Latin. The top had four sides with four letters: T (“take all”), H (“half”), P (“put in”), and N (“nothing”).聽The four letters on the dreidel are the Yiddish equivalent:聽Nun聽(“nichts”=”nothing”),聽gimmel聽(“ganz”=”all”),聽heh聽(“halb”=”half”), and聽shin (“stell ein”=”put in”).聽It has exactly the same rules as the totum聽game. You start out with a certain number of coins or candies or something, and each player spins the top in turn, and then must follow its instructions. If you spin聽a nun, nothing happens. If you spin聽a聽gimmel, you take everything in the pile in the middle. If you spin聽a聽heh, you get half of what’s in the pile. If you spin聽a聽shin, you have to put some of your objects in the middle.

So why is there a聽peh instead of a聽shin on the Israeli dreidels? Probably a Zionist invention based on the traditional explanation of the significance of the letters. The early Zionists were really into Chanukah because it emphasizes聽the image of the strong Jew protecting himself that they wanted to promote. They probably brought their dreidels with them and said, “Hey,聽nes gadol haya sham? I don’t think so!聽Nes gadol haya聽po!

It’s not entirely impossible that there was a game like this back in the days of the Greeks and/or Romans and that the Jews did, in fact, pretend to be gambling with it as a cover story to hide what they were actually gathered to do. But it’s more likely that it was a later development, and I see no reason to suspend disbelief on this…

Anyway, in an attempt to expand the commercial potential of Chanukah (not unlike the Catalan booksellers’ exploitation聽of St. Jordi’s Day聽馃槢 ), stores are not satisfied just selling dreidels–they sell all manner of tops and spinning toys “in the spirit of Chanukah.”

I bet I could make some profound metaphor about spinning and being dizzy and what it means to be Jewish聽or something, but… I’ll spare you. 馃槢

4) Chocolate Coins

If you’re gonna play dreidel, you need something to bet with, right?

Chocolate gelt!
Chocolate gelt!

That’s “gelt,” not “guilt.” There was a tradition on Chanukah to give children a little money (“gelt” in Yiddish) as a gift. (Gifts were not a Chanukah thing until our kids started getting jealous of the Christian kids with their Santa Clauses and their Christmas trees and their caga-ti贸s. 馃槢 ) So chocolate coins became a popular Chanukah treat.

5) Lights

Now I know this is not unique to Chanukah among winter holidays, but in our defense, Chanukah has always been聽known as the “Festival of Lights,” given that candles and flames are an essential聽part of the Chanukah story. So yes, you will find the street lamps decorated with lights, usually in blue and white.

6) Chanukah Parody Music Videos

Obviously this is a very recent phenomenon, and I believe it was started by the Maccabeats. They were an a cappella group from Yeshiva University (now they are still an a cappella group, but they’ve graduated) who made a silly video for their Chanukah parody song, “Candlelight,” and released it in time for Chanukah in 2010. The video went viral, and ever since, they as well as other Jewish musicians and a cappella groups seem to have made a tradition of releasing music videos for songs with Chanukah-oriented lyrics–some parodies, some original–around this time of year. The trend has also extended to other holidays, especially Passover, but Chanukah usually sees the most action on this front.

Last year, there were two parodies of Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” (this is the better of the two) and one of Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” (“All About That Neis“). This year’s offerings include a Maccabeats parody of Walk the Moon’s super catchy “Shut Up and Dance with Me” called “Latke Recipe” (which I thought was pretty cute), “A One Direction Hannukah” parody mash-up by a collaboration of Jewish performers (I’m not a big fan of One Direction, but I loved what they did with “Story of My Life”), and Six13’s parody of Silent贸’s “Watch Me” (a song I personally can’t stand, but never mind).

7) Preschool Chanukah Parties

If I were Catholic, this is where I would cross myself. 馃槢

This is one of those things about Israeli culture I have never聽learned to appreciate. It’s not that other Jews around the world don’t have Chanukah parties. It’s just that the way it’s done here is so… strangely ritualistic. Every preschool hosts two important parties during the year: the Chanukah party, and the graduation party. The content of the party varies from school to school, but there are two elements that are common to all of them: they聽involve some kind of performance on the part of the children; and they involve food–starring the ubiquitous sufganiya. There are certain activities I have seen at almost every preschool, such as the “giant cardboard dreidel descending from the ceiling and opening up to reveal treats for all the kids” thing. (It’s like a pi帽ata聽without the violence, I guess?)

The parties tend to be聽noisy and crowded and overstimulating in a serious way.聽Most Israeli parents absolutely love them and look forward to watching their little darlings wear paper hats and twirl around with streamers and flashlights and whatnot.

I. hate.聽them.

I mean dude, you know my kids are awesome and highly entertaining, but聽I would much rather watch them build a block tower or roll around on their gym聽balls in my living room than聽watch them stand there looking bewildered as the teacher herds them into some formation. And dear God, the noise. Not “highly sensitive person” territory in the slightest.聽Still,聽I suck it up and go, because apparently,聽to stay home would聽be no less than聽to deprive聽my children of a normal Israeli childhood.

Well, at least there’s food at the end. 馃槢

In defense of R2’s preschool, his party was on Monday and they kept it really low-key and relaxed, with only one vaguely performance-y dance thing. And also, they get The Good Sufganiyot from our local bakery. 馃榾 (A “good sufganiya” is not overly greasy and contains actual strawberry jam, as opposed to that artificially flavored crimson gelatinous excuse for a doughnut filling they use in the generic, cheap ones they usually hand out at such events.) R1’s party is on Thursday and I am less optimistic on the low-key-ness front, but he’s in the older聽class in the same preschool as R2, so The Good Sufganiyot will be available as compensation. 馃槈

Also, one thing I love about their preschool is the way they tell the children the story of Chanukah, focusing primarily on the Holy Temple and the Maccabees’ aspiration to redeem and rededicate it, as opposed to their fight against the Greeks. It’s a subtle distinction, but I appreciate it.

…Yes, it is no coincidence that four聽out of the seven聽items I listed here involve food. Chanukah is another one of those Jewish holidays that follows the classic formula:聽they tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat!

So nu, Josep, are we finally going to merit a picture聽of your chanukiyah lit up this year?! 馃槈 First candle at nightfall聽on Sunday!



1. If you don’t know what this is, see this post.

Blog readers: What are your favorite Chanukah music videos?! Share them in the comments!

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