Chanukah in Jerusalem

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With menorahs nearly at full strength, this weekend will be a prime time to explore the alleyways of Jerusalem and enjoy the lights over the weekend

 AllAboutJerusalem presents some suggestions, directions, explanations and not-to-be-missed experiences.

Try to imagine a family of eight trying to light eight Chanukah menorahs near the front door, in a joint courtyard shared by several families.

On second thought, don’t try to imagine it. Come to Jerusalem; you won’t be disappointed.

Chanukah is a bit of an exception in the Jewish calendar. It is the only holiday that does not appear anywhere in the bible, and it is the longest of all Jewish holidays – eight full days.

There is certainly no shortage of things to enjoy about Chanukah, and a menorah tour in Jerusalem is different than similar tours anywhere else, due to the special nature of the city’s menorahs.

Aquarium menorah
Yes, it’s true. Just like there is unique Jerusalem grill, the capital also has its own unique style of menorah: because the Jerusalem winter does not often allow for placing the menorah outside for passers-by to see, Jerusalemites have devised a creative solution – a menorah box to protect the candles from the elements.

The box, a sort of aquarium, most covered in copper with glass windows in front and back. Inside, there are eight glasses, similar to small coffee cups, with oil and wicks and a chimney for air.

Aquarium Menorah in Mea Shearim, Jerusalem

Photo: Gad Rize

Of course, there are several explanations of the origins of the Jerusalem menorah, but the most often heard is that the custom originated with 19th century Christian pilgrims. The pilgrims would march in processional to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to light candles from the holy fire burning in the church. Russian pilgrims created a candle in an “aquarium” with a handle to carry the fire back to their communities.

Getting lost in Jerusalem

Unfortunately, in recent years the ultra-Orthodox Meah Shearim neighborhood has become pretty unfriendly to tour groups, and at present the best places in town for menorah tours are Nachlaot and the Jewish Quarter of the Old City.

In the 22 sub-neighborhoods that make up the Nachlaot quarter near the Machane Yehuda market, one can find courtyards of Ashkenazim, Sephardim, secular Israelis, and of course Chassidim.

No prior familiarity with Nachlaot is required to wander the paths and crowded neighborhoods. Just walk, get lost, and wander. I have seen menorahs covered with wine on a ladder, menorahs in actual aquaria (no fish), menorahs in which the candles are placed on a toothrush base and countless other examples.

In the old city of Jerusalem

One of the most amazing courtyards in all of Jerusalem is the “Hush” (courtyard in Arabic) in the Jewish Quarter of the old city. Just try to count the number of menorahs in the tiny courtyard, but don’t forget that people live here.

Menorah during Chanukah in Mea Shearim

Photo: Gad Rize

In the other courtyards leading off of Chabad Street, Prophet Street and other Jewish Quarter streets, one will find menorahs in the wall facing the street. At the end of Shoni Halachot Street is a fantastic view of the Western Wall.

More menorahs can be found on Mt. Zion, near King David’s Tomb.

Chanukah around the world
Chanukah, the holiday marking the Hasmonean victory over Antiochus, has given birth over the years to many local customs in Jewish communities around the world. In Damascus, Syria, for example, children used to bring swords to the rabbi’s house, as if going out to fight the Greeks.

Yemenite children would go from house to house carrying paper torches, complete with candles, and Baghdadi Jews would distribute poppyseed cake with honey.

In Jerusalem, children used to sing Ladino songs in the street and ask for goods such as garlic, onions, flour and oil. At the end they would bless the donors, saying “Just as they have given us, may God give them a blessing.” What a tragedy I’ve never had the opportunity to actually witness the custom.

Chanukah Games

Chanukah games have also gained an honored part of the tradition. Perhaps because of short days and long, cold evenings traditionally forced people to stay at home, card games, board games, and of course dreidle have become an inseparable part of the holiday.

Despite the legend that says the dreidle was created to teach children Torah when that activity was forbidden by Antiochus, the spinning top actually originated in India, believe it or not. There, it was used as a betting game for the short winter days and as a prayer for the return of the sun. A different direction was written on each side.
The custom of giving “Chanukah gelt” (money) originated in the past several hundred years. One Hebrew book says that 16th century children used to give presents to their teachers and collect food stuffs from other houses. I don’t know of any children who aren’t thrilled about this custom.

And no Chanukah tour of Jerusalem would be complete without a jelly donut or potato latke, available at any bakery in town. Happy Chanukah!


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