Holidays Israel Middle East 2011/12 Travel Stories Videos

Hanukkah in Jerusalem’s Old City (VIDEO)

Hanukkah (or Chanukah, depending on which transliteration you go for) is a pretty exciting time in Israel. The candles, the cheer, the doughnuts…

Yes, the doughnuts, a special Hanukkah treat that Israelis are down right obsessed with. See, I went to Israel expecting to find that Israelis ate latkes as a Hanukkah treat like their American brethren do, but nary a latke was to be found amongst the sea of doughnuts with nearly any imaginable topping or filling. Why, you could even get yourself a doughnut complete with a shot of a alcohol! Sounds crazy, right? Well it’s true!

But I’m guessing you didn’t click on this link just to read about doughnuts, did you…

Hanukkah at the Western Wall

The Kotel, also known as the Western Wall or the Wailing Wall, is the holiest site in the world for the Jewish people. Given this, I simply knew that I needed to stick around Jerusalem to witness the happenings on the first of the 8 nights Hanukkah. And there was excitement brimming as I joined the scene down at the “Wall,” as it had come to simply be known by during the week or so I had spend exploring the windy streets of the Old City.

The Western Wall and Dome of the Rock

First, a little background. The Western Wall is so aptly named because it was the western wall of the Second Temple, built on the Temple Mount, the supposed site of the original Solomon’s Temple. You may also know the Temple Mount as the site of the Dome of the Rock, though that came after the Second Temple had been destroyed. For many Jews, the Western Wall is a site of pilgrimage.

Directly in front of the wall stood a large menorah, which for the celebration of Hanukkah is referred to as a hanukhiah. As the sun became low in the sky a group of Rabbis took to the stage and began to pray. The crowd echoed along, divided into the orthodox-segregated gender groups that are required at the Wall. I was fixated on filming the scene before me when suddenly a friend tapped my shoulder and pointed to a building off the right. There, a man stood carrying an enormous torch. And as flames burst into the sky from the over sized hanukiah on the roof, music blared and people began to dance.

Giant Hanukiah at the Western Wall

The celebration was a sight to be seen, as men formed hands in circle to do a traditional dance and young children, not in the orthodox section, introduced their own not-so-traditional dance moves. But before long, it was time for yet another lighting. This time it was for the hanukiah directly in front of the wall. The crowd had grown.

No dancing followed this second lighting, but instead speeches of well wishes and stories from the Rabbis, including one in English. By now, a real sense of camaraderie seemed to have passed through the orthodox sections, as strangers linked arms in celebration.

Hanukiah at the Western Wall

Perhaps the most poignant moment of the evening was the Muslim Call to Prayer, which could be heard coming from the Temple Mount at the same time that the Rabbis were praying. It was a shining example of the 3 different faiths that (mostly) cohabitate well within the walls of the 1 square kilometer Old City. It can be heard on the video I put together of the event:

Hanukkah in Jerusalem: The Video

The Sun Sets, The Celebrations Begin (with Audio)!

Once the sun had sense, the Jewish Quarter of the Old City was in full out party mode. Homes placed their hanukiahs in their windows or in glass boxes for all to see. Groups hosted private parties, complete with big bands playing their own traditional celebratory music. Check out the audio clip below to hear what some of those sounded like.

[haiku url=”” title=”A Hanukkah Celebration in the Old City”]

Candles Outside a Home

But the most striking moment was a band of young men, complete with guitar and drum that roamed the streets of the Jewish Quarter singing traditional songs (with a slight modern twist), serenading anyone who would listen. And with them, they carried a box of those aforementioned doughnuts, giving them to anyone who wanted one. I was so taken by this lovely example of holiday cheer that I followed them for a good 5 minutes and caught some of their song on audio clip, which you can hear below.

[haiku url=”” title=”Guys With a Drum, Guitar and Doughnuts Celebrate in the Old City”]

Hanukkah Experiences Elsewhere in Israel

One of the joys of Hanukkah is that it lasts for 8 nights, so I had plenty of options to encounter more intimate celebrations along my journey. And when I say that there’s a true spirit of generosity and friendship, I really mean it!

On night 3, I found myself in Tel Aviv, sitting on the beach having a few drinks with a few folks from my Birthright trip who had also extended (don’t worry, there are no open container laws in Israel). It was around 11pm when a man approached us carrying a hanukiah. He spoke no English, but went ahead and lit candles and sang prayers with us. And he made it clear that when the candles had fully melted, we should pass the hanukiah along to a nearby bar.

And on night 7, I found myself in a very touristy bar in the southern resort town of Eilat (which was a city that I was no fan of). Again, it was near 11pm and a man walked in with a hanukiah to light candles. Suddenly all the bar tenders threw napkins over their heads (hey, men are supposed to keep their heads covered, right?) and ran over to join in prayer!

Coming Together as a Society

Candles Outside a Home

I think the real beauty of celebrating a Jewish holiday in Israel is the real sense of community that can be felt. Sure, by and large Israel is a fairly secular society, but to witness people coming together in celebration, particularly for something that tends to be a fairly quiet affair in the U.S., was truly inspiring!


By Aaron

Hey there! I'm Aaron and this is my travel site, where I document my adventures to all corners of the world. My love for travel started at the ripe old age of four, when a midlife crisis uprooted my family to Ecuador for five years. Since then, I've been to countries on 4 different continents. When I'm not blissfully on the road, I reside in New York City, where I become the ultimate travel junkie and spend my days dreaming up my next great adventure! Read More...

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