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Jewish holiday traditions: Chanukah

My boyfriend insists that his basketball team can perform miracles. Yes, yes I know what you’re thinking (and, quite frankly, what I’m thinking, too) that when it comes to men and sports, you should just nod and agree to anything said. Over the years I have been in Israel however, I have come to realize he has an amusing (albeit illogical point.) Every year on Chanukah, without fail, Maccabi Tel Aviv (similarly named to the Maccabees who heroically defended the city of Jerusalem against the Greeks) manage to scrape a seemingly impossible win in the closing minutes of their match. What’s more, they always win against Panathinaikos, their Greek adversary. Like the Maccabees, he tells me, they are the underdogs and yet they still manage to succeed.

“It’s nothing short of miraculous,” he says, as we munch on our sufganiot (donuts). I do the nod-and-agree trick and wait until the highlights are over.

Latkes, gelt, and sufganiot

Right or wrong, over the eight days of Chanukah, there is certainly a festive sort of feeling that extends beyond his apartment. From the latkes to the gelt to the giving of Tzedakah, Chanukah is perhaps the most enjoyable Chag (festival) in the Jewish calendar. Whilst most of us have to go to work as normal (although as a teacher, I am one of the lucky few that gets the eight days off) there is the same festive hype that encompasses Britain when the first Coca-Cola adverts appear on television. Instead of mince pies, we eat sufganiot and latkes (similar to hash browns), with the oil they are fried in being representative of the oil that miraculously kept the Menorah (light) in the temple burning for eight days when the volume of oil was supposed to be enough for only one. The variety of sufganiot is astounding — you can now buy halva and pistachio-filled donuts — and consequently, like Christmas, excessive amounts of nosh cause the same expansion of our waistlines, and all of us predictably resolve once again to start diets in the new year.

Dreidles and balagans

As a teacher of English as a foreign language, I love to use the Chagim (festivals) as an opportunity to have a bit of fun in class. As a kid growing up in England, we used to spin dreidels — spinning tops with the Hebrew letters נ, ג, ה, פ — short for “nes gadol haya po” (a huge miracle took place) engraved into their sides, and I was inspired to try a bit of dreidel making with my younger classes. At first it sounded like a balagan (clown show), but after a quick Google search, I realized that the work had already been done for me. Crayola have their own free downloadable dreidel-making packs, complete with colour coded instructions. Perfect. All I had to do was print.

Unfortunately, my dreidle-making workshop was not the first my students had encountered and I ended up throwing Chanukah gelt at them in order to appease them. Sated with the chocolate coins, they were surprisingly quiet and I resolved to find more edible activities in the near future.

Menorahs and shamash

As I walked home through the tree-lined Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv, I could see the lights of the Chanukiahs flickering in the windows. Before I lived in Israel, I rarely lit the eight-armed candle over Chanukah. My family has become a bit lax with Chagim traditions in recent years, but here in Israel, even in secular Tel Aviv, it is so much part of the culture of the country that they are visible from almost every apartment. It is truly something I love about this country: the spirit of the festivals, which, whether you are secular or religious, infects the nation as a whole.

When I arrived home, I saw that my roommates had bought dulce de leche flavoured donuts today. I wiped sugar from sufganiot off the kitchen counter and lit the shamash, the candle you use to light the other eight candles in the Chanukiah. I couldn’t really remember the prayer but it didn’t matter. I have eight days to memorize it, after all, and failing that, I could always sing Adam Sandler’s ode to Chanukah – those words I already know by heart!

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