When Martine Halban moved from Egypt to England as a young child in the late 1950s, she says Jewish holidays were a very private issue. “People were very cautious about showing their Jewish identity and did their best to behave as ‘English’ as possible,” the 61-year-old owner of an independent Jewish publishing house in London recalls. “But now Hanukkah has become a really big thing. Actually, it’s huge.”
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With a Jewish community of some 200,000, in the past few years London has seen several public menorahs on display in the city – including the world’s largest hanukkiah, lit last year in Trafalgar Square, and a smaller one in Hyde Park. Mayor Boris Johnson has personally hosted the menorah lighting ceremony since 2011 and will continue to do so this year. Prime Minister David Cameron routinely issues Hanukkah greetings.
British Jews, says Halban, are “becoming more open” about celebrating the holiday and about their Jewishness in general, and it’s increasingly common to see non-Jews involved in the Trafalgar Square celebrations. The trend, she believes, is quite recent. “Things have changed a lot in the past few years. I guess multiculturalism is good for the Jews.
“Possibly Hanukkah is getting bigger because we [British Jews] are following the trend in America,” she adds. However, unlike in many U.S. communities, Hanukkah in London is not seen as a sort of Jewish equivalent to Christmas. “It’s not remotely as commercialized as Christmas,” says Halban.
London is not the only European city where Hanukkah is gaining popularity – and visibility. “You cannot be in Budapest and not know it’s Hanukkah,” says Zsófia Kata Vincze, a Hungarian ethnologist who has authored a book on the Jewish renaissance. The number of Jews in Budapest is hard to quantify – “it could range from 16,000 to 130,000,” says Vincze – because of the large number of people who used to keep their identity secret for fear of persecution and are now re-embracing it.
“Hanukkah is much more popular among young [Hungarian] Jews than compared to older generations,” adds Vincze. “Because Jews were persecuted under Communism, no one dared to celebrate the holidays. But young people who grew up after 1989 have rediscovered them, and especially Hanukkah.”
Hanukkah and Christmas: 2-for-1
A big part of Hanukkah’s popularity is its proximity to Christmas, says Vincze, noting the time under Communist rule when some Hungarian Jews, pressured to hide their identity, felt they had only one way to express their Jewishness in their family life: by not celebrating Christmas. As opposed to the days when Hungarian Jews celebrated neither Hanukkah nor Christmas, now, in contrast, they not only have a renewed relationship with Hanukkah but also in many (secular) cases, even celebrate Christmas as well.
In Budapest’s Jewish quarters, there are several large menorahs publicly lit in several open spaces. Besides the one set up every year by Chabad-Lubavitch – the Hasidic group that lights more than 40 “public menorahs” around the globe – there are several events organized by smaller groups. For instance, Marom – a youth organization devoted to reinterpreting Jewish traditions – has for the past few years been organizing public candle-lighting ceremonies with modern-design menorahs and music. “Young educated Jews in Budapest are doing their best to make Hanukkah hip and contemporary,” explains Vincze.
Elsewhere in Europe, however, Hanukkah celebrations are still relatively low-key. Like Paris, for example. “Besides the big menorah [traditionally set up near the Eiffel Tower] by Chabad, the holiday is invisible here and you wouldn’t know it’s Hanukkah unless you’re Jewish,” says Sara Tobaly, 32, an IT worker living in the French capital, which has an estimated Jewish population of 280,000. “Everything is very simple and private, and I like it this way,” she says. “Most of my non-Jewish friends don’t even know what Hanukkah is; it’s something you celebrate with your family and close friends.”
Tobaly believes the reason is more to do with the fact that religion is largely considered a private affair in France, and doesn’t feel anti-Semitism is a major factor in the quiet nature of the holiday there – except perhaps, she said, for the fact she has noticed “more security” recently at Jewish events.
No bells, no whistles
In European cities where the Jewish community is significantly smaller, some people are having a tougher time maintaining the tradition ... or even finding the basic objects to celebrate Hanukkah. In Milan, for example, “candles are the hardest part, finding the right kind [to fit the menorah] is almost impossible here,” says Lorit Kaplan, a native of Los Angeles who moved to northern Italy 20 years ago and has served as the president of Milan’s Reform congregation, Beth Shalom.
There are some 7,000 Jews in Milan and a single Judaica shop, primarily serving the Orthodox community. As a mother of two, Kaplan complains that the scarcity of Judaica materials and decorations “makes it harder to compete with Christmas, especially for the kids: They see Christmas decorations everywhere and no reference of Hanukkah at all, and ask their parents why they don’t get any of that cool stuff.”
But others enjoy celebrating Hanukkah in places where the Jewish community is relatively small precisely because it lacks a commercial angle: “I like to celebrate Hanukkah here because it’s not so much of a known holiday. There’s no commercial aspect whatsoever, and, paradoxically, it’s an antidote to the wide misunderstanding that Hanukkah is some sort of Jewish Christmas,” explains Adam Goldmann, 27, a freelance journalist originally from New York and now living in Berlin (with a Jewish population of some 30,000 and a growing Diaspora of young Israelis).
“In New York you cannot go into a shop without seeing a menorah next to the Christmas tree, so people tend to think they are related, and Hanukkah is easily obscured by the holiday spirit. Here, I feel free to enjoy Hanukkah for what it really is, a secondary Jewish holiday,” adds Goldmann. “On a practical level it’s very difficult to find menorahs and candles that fit them ... but it’s not a bad thing – it makes you more creative. Once I had to make my own menorah with empty wine bottles. Hanukkah in Berlin is very DIY, and I love it.”