JERUSALEM (RNS) – Yael Horovitz, who immigrated to Israel from Australia, always loved the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, but the emphasis there on Christmas made her feel a little left out.
“In Australia, for two months out of the year I couldn’t escape Christmas carols,” said Horovitz, who is Jewish. “Being forced to listen to them in supermarkets, shopping centers, on the radio and TV bothered me.”
Hanukkah, the eight-day Jewish festival of lights that commemorates the Maccabees’ victory over their Greek-Syrian oppressors in 167 B.C., as well as the rededication of the Second Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, was barely acknowledged by most Australians, Horovitz said.
But Hanukkah, which begins at sundown Tuesday (Dec. 12), is an altogether different experience for her now.
Ten years ago Horovitz moved to Israel, where Jews comprise roughly 75 percent of the population. Here, the holiday season “feels so right,” she said. “This is my religion, these are my songs, my decorations, my kids being educated to love their heritage, and being embraced by it from all sides.”
Hanukkah in the Holy Land gives Horovitz and other Jews who have immigrated to Israel from Western countries a sense of belonging they don’t feel anywhere else. In Israel, though Hanukkah is not a national holiday, most of the nation celebrates it.
That’s a big contrast to the way many American Jews feel at Christmastime, said Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University.
“Christmas is the one day of the year when many American Jews experience a sense that they are outsiders in America” because Christmas, a religious holiday, is also a national holiday, Sarna said.
Although Hanukkah is a minor festival on the Jewish calendar, Sarna said, more than a century ago American Jews elevated the holiday “as a way to ensure that they were not left out of the holiday spirit.”
Their goal, Sarna said, was to ensure that Jewish children would be happy and proud of their own winter holiday and not want to celebrate the holiday of another religion.
Even so, if you live in the U.S., “it is impossible to avoid Santa and Christmas music and holiday lights. It’s the time of year when the differences between Jews and their neighbors seem most stark.”
That’s not the case in Israel, Sarna said, where Hanukkah and not Christmas is the dominant December holiday. Just 2.1 percent of Israelis are Christian; 17 percent are Muslim; 1.7 percent are Druze. The remaining 4 percent belong to other religious minorities or have no religion.
Although Hanukkah in Israel remains far less commercialized than it is in the U.S., with shopping malls hanging nary a holiday decoration, it has more recently taken on some of its American trappings.
This week, Osher Ad, a large Jerusalem supermarket, had two aisles’ worth of Hanukkah-related products, from elaborate faux-silver menorahs to imported paper Hanukkah plates and napkins and dreidel-shaped containers filled with chocolate candies.
And rather than sell only simple jelly doughnuts, a traditional Hanukkah treat, now bakeries around the country create fancy and expensive Western-style doughnuts.
Jewish children are on school break the week of Hanukkah, so movie theaters time their new releases to the vacation. Festigal, a live music and dance show for children, is an annual tradition.
Compared with the holiday season in the U.S., however, Hanukkah in Israel is low-key. Families gather to light the menorah – some have a separate one for each child – and eat doughnuts or potato pancakes fried in oil. (Oily foods are eaten on Hanukkah to commemorate the “miracle” of the holiday, when enough oil to light a lamp for just one night lasted for eight.)
Some parents give their children presents – though almost never more than a couple — or Hanukkah “gelt” – both money and chocolate coins.
Orthodox families like to light their menorahs outside, in glass containers, so everyone who passes can soak up their light.
Tsipi Amiri, whose family lived in the U.S. until she was 10, said she doesn’t miss the “commercialization” of the holiday season or the pressure to celebrate Hanukkah with lots of fanfare and gifts.
“There was this competition within the American Jewish community about who got what,” Amiri said. “Thankfully, I don’t see that here.”
Netanya Carmi said the first thing she noticed during her first Israeli Hanukkah 20 years ago was that many stores close early every night and evening classes at universities are canceled so all can go home and light candles with their families.
“Here in Israel, Hanukkah is all about tradition and family,” Carmi said.