Chanukah traditions in Israel are many—it's hard to escape the ubiquitous offerings of sufganiyot (doughnuts with every conceivable kind of gooey filling) that turn up at business meetings and social gatherings during the festival. School kids are on vacation and every shopping mall and park hosts elaborate children's entertainment. But one of the most popular Chanukah activities in Jerusalem is walking around the older neighborhoods to see the lights in action.
Groups of secular Israelis from all over the country gather to gape in awe at their ultra--Orthodox brethren who celebrate Chanukah in the picturesque Jerusalem neighborhood of Nachlaot.
Part of the commandment of the eight-day festival is to publicize the miracle of the Jewish victory over the Hellenists. That means placing the lit Chanukiya outside one's home. In parts of Nachlaot, just behind the Machane Yehuda market, almost every home has a Chanukiya burning brightly outside the door in the early evening hours. They're filled with oil (where did candles come from, anyway??) and enclosed in a brass and glass holder.
While parts of the all-pedestrian neighborhood are being gentrified and populated by English-speaking, newly-religious families, large areas are still unchanged and home to an impoverished community of ultra-Orthodox large families and elderly Sephardic residents. In the courtyards ringed by tiny, dilapidated apartments, children scamper about collecting Chanuka gelt from the tourists as their parents turn aside to avoid the flashlights.
One young, friendly American-born Gerer chasid invites us in to light the Chanukiya with his wife and multitude of children. Several of his kids hand out a booklet they've prepared in Hebrew explaining the Haredi lifestyle to the outsiders. After about 10 minutes of carefully grooming the wicks for the oil, the tall gregarious Chasid starts to sing the blessings and invites the large crowd that's gathered outside his window to join in. "The women should be careful not to sing any solos, or I'll get kicked out of the neighborhood," he laughs.
Back out in the courtyard, the Chanukiyot in front of each doorway make it easy to see how many families are crammed into a small area. The darkness masks the primitive housing, while the light from the Chanukiyot in every nook and cranny creates a magical atmosphere for the scores of wandering tourists.
A few hundred yards away along King George Street and on the Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall, almost every shop-owner has a lit Chanukiya in their display window or near the entryway. Customers join in the recitation of the blessings as merchants pause to kindle the lights.
No worries here about public displays of religious expression…