Chanukah comes at a strange time for Jews in predominantly Christian countries.
Surrounded by Christmas songs, Christmas trees, Christmas gifts, and non-Jewish friends wishing us a “Merry Christmas”, occasionally adding a “Happy Holidays”.
This month of ever-present Christian imagery often makes us question how we fit into the modern diaspora, and how to celebrate our distinct Jewish traditions and culture when we are surrounded by different cultures.
The story of Chanukah itself demonstrates that this has been an issue for millennia, which is shown by the prominence of Hellenized Jews – Jews who adopted elements of ancient Greek culture such as gymnasiums. The Maccabees heavily denounced them, believing that Jews shouldn’t assimilate at all, which eventually turned into a sort of civil war between the more traditional Jews and Hellenized Jews. These clashes between Jews with different traditions and cultures were commonplace for a large part of Jewish history.
Ever since then, the way we celebrate Chanukah and the nature of our traditions have developed differently in various parts of the world – sometimes in response to the local culture or other times because an entirely new tradition developed somewhere.
One of the most well-known examples of Chanukah evolving in response to local culture is the status of the chag in American society, essentially becoming a “Jewish Christmas”. In America, the chag has been commercialised in a similar way to Christmas, with gift-giving becoming an important tradition. Some American Jews also celebrate with “Chanukah Bushes”, which is essentially a Christmas tree decorated with Jewish symbols.
Chanukah has also taken on distinct aspects of local culture in non-Christian parts of the world. India has a number of unique traditions, such as using coconut oil to light Menorahs, because olive oil was highly inaccessible and expensive when Jews first arrived in India. It’s also common to eat Barfi – an Indian dessert based on milk and different fruits.
There are also some unique traditions that sprung up over time around the world. For example, in Yemen and some other countries across the Middle East and North Africa, the seventh night of Chanukah is a special women’s holiday. This night celebrates important women, especially a woman from the Torah named Channah who sacrificed seven sons to protect Judaism against Greek pressure to convert.
There are also some traditions that mix local non-Jewish culture with the unique culture of the local Jewish community. In Turkey, Jews often sing a Chanukah song called “Ocho Candelas”, meaning “Eight Candles”. This song is sung in Ladino (a Jewish dialect of Spanish that was spoken by Sephardic Jews) because many Sephardim expelled from Spain moved to Turkey.
One especially interesting community is the Ethiopian community, which didn’t traditionally celebrate Chanukah at all. This is because they were expelled from biblical Israel before the story of Chanukah took place, and remained largely separated from other Jewish communities around the world until a few decades ago. Today, most Ethiopian Jews have started celebrating Chanukah, usually taking on Israeli traditions.
Traditionally, Jews in the diaspora say “Nes Gadol Hayah Sham” – A Great Miracle Happened There, referring to the liberation of Israel and the establishment of an independent Jewish kingdom.
However, we have many miracles to be grateful for today – each of the unique Chanukah traditions and customs that have evolved in different parts of the world.
These traditions show how far we have come as a nation. Although intolerance of different practices within Judaism used to be commonplace, modern Jews largely have an understanding that different customs are accepted, possibly even expected to develop throughout different communities.
The greatest miracle of all is that more than 2000 years after the story of Chanukah, Jews around the world still have such rich, diverse ways of celebrating the holiday, formed by mixing local cultures with our own Jewish story.