Beyond Gelt: How Mizrahi Jews Celebrate Hanukkah

Whether coconut or olive oil, sfenj or patacones, celebrating women or hiding lit hanukkiahs away from sight, every Mizrahi or Sephardic Hanukkah tradition has its own vibrant story.
December 16, 2020
Photo by luaeva/Getty Images

In last week’s column, I revealed that I never saw a dreidel until I came to the United States, where Ashkenazi Hanukkah customs, like dreidels, gelt, latkes and songs about, well, dreidels, rule the roost.

I shared that back in Iran, a Shiite country, the lure of Christmas didn’t exist for Jewish kids, thus rendering the Americanized eight nights of Hanukkah gift-giving nonexistent. In Iran, we also kept our glowing hanukkiahs as far away as possible from windows and anywhere else that would practically serve as a big, fat sign that read, “A Jewish family lives here.”

Iranian Jews don’t have many unique Hanukkah customs, but that’s not the case for many other Mizrahi and Sephardic communities around the world. I love Ashkenazim, but given the way their Hanukkah customs are ubiquitous in the United States, one would never know there’s a wonderful world of traditions beyond potato pancakes and chocolate coins.

In Yemen and North Africa, the seventh night of Hanukkah marks Chag Ha’Banot (“Eid Al Banat” in Judeo-Arabic), or The Festival of Daughters, which celebrates one of the best things Judaism has ever given to the world: Jewish women.

The festival, which usually falls on Rosh Chodesh Tevet, involves singing, dancing and lighting the hanukkiah in honor of Jewish women like Judith, the young widow-turned-heroine of the Hanukkah story who fought against assimilation (the Book of Judith is on par with the Book of Maccabees itself).

A North African feminist Hanukkah? Why don’t more American Jews know about that?

In countries like Libya and Tunisia, women traditionally went to synagogue on Chag Ha’Banot to touch the Torah and pray for their daughters’ health; young women and old women would dance together; girls who had turned their backs against one another would reconcile; and, in many communities, there was a dairy feast in honor of Judith, who falsely told the Syrian Greek General Holofernes she’d help him and his army take the city of Bethulia, offering him salty cheese and wine and then, once he was drunk enough, beheading him. The sight of their headless general terrified enemy soldiers into fleeing and revived the morale of Maccabee fighters.

This year, JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa) will host a virtual Chag Ha’Banot celebration on the last night of Hanukkah, December 17, featuring Israeli singer Lala Tamar, who will perform via live stream from a concert in Morocco, as well as Jackie Barzvi, a North Carolina-based dance instructor and performer who will lead a celebratory dance to Jewish Moroccan Music. (Barzvi recently created the Mizrachi Dance Archive, a virtual catalog of information about Mizrahi dance traditions whose aim, according to its website, is to  “help preserve, celebrate and bring a new light to the stories, cultures, and history of Mizrachi Jews.”)

In addition to honoring women, there’s another North African Hanukkah custom that gets little attention in the United States.

“Moroccan Jews never used candles but always oil,” said Rabbi Daniel Bouskila, director of the Sephardic Educational Center, rabbi of the Westwood Village Synagogue and my go-to guru on all things Sephardic. “And most Sephardic homes light only one menorah per household, not one for each member of the household.”

While Moroccan Jews prefer wicks dipped in olive oil, Jews in India use coconut oil to light their hanukkiahs and enjoy mouth-watering Indian treats, such as deep-fried onion pakoras and gulab jamun, fried balls of dough dipped in syrup. Moroccan Jews enjoy sfenj, deep-fried donuts with orange zest (often on the third night of Hanukkah). Bouskila reminisced how his mother, who was Algerian, made special Hanukkah beignets, or donuts.

“Several years back, wanting my own heritage to have a say among all these Sephardic/Mizrahi fritter traditions, I started making zoulbia (deep-fried Persian funnel cake) for Hanukkah,” said Los Angeles-based food writer Tannaz Sassooni, who was born in Iran. “It seems like a perfect fit. It’s really fun to squeeze out squiggles of batter into the hot oil, and when you soak them in a rosewater and honey syrup, they are just delicious — and perfect with tea! The homemade ones are more delicate than store-bought, and when you make them fresh, they are nice and crispy.”

If you ask me, the grand prize of fried foods during Hanukkah goes to Colombian Jews in Santa Marta, who make patacones — fried plantains.

As for gelt, the original Hanukkah coins weren’t made of chocolate — they were real. In countries like Yemen, Jewish parents would give their children a daily coin to buy sugar and red food dye to make “Hanukkah wine,” and in North Africa, poor children would knock on the doors of Jewish homes and offer protection from the “evil eye” by burning special grasses. They were paid with coins.

For some communities, safety and protection were important themes during Hanukkah. Many Syrian Jews from Aleppo, who trace their Sephardic ancestry to the Jews expelled from Spain in 1492, have a special custom of lighting an extra flame each night of the holiday.

“Lighting the extra flame has become a hallmark of these Sephardic-Syrian Jews,” Bouskila said. “It represents their gratitude for the safety and tolerance they encountered in their adopted homeland of Syria. According to one interpretation, they arrived in safety in Syria after the expulsion on the first night of Hanukkah, and they viewed their arrival in safety as their own miracle of Hanukkah.”

Some Jews light extra flames while others recite extra prayers. Most of us have heard of Megillat Esther, which is recited on Purim, but “Megillat Antiochus,” a work from the second century that is distinct from the Book of the Maccabees, still forms part of the Hanukkah liturgy of Yemenite Jews.

Yes, there’s a whole megillah named after the terrible king from the Hanukkah story. I’ll admit I didn’t even know it existed.

On each night of Hanukkah, North African Jews recite Psalm 30 while lighting the hanukkiah because its opening line is “Mizmor Shir Hanukkat Ha’Bayit L’David” — “A Psalm at the Dedication (Hanukkat) of the House of David.”

In Turkey, Jews sing the Ladino song “Ocho Kandelikas” (“Eight Little Candles”), which describes the joy of lighting a hanukkiah from the perspective of a child. Whether in Istanbul or Athens, Ladino-speaking Jews wish one another “Hanukkah Alegre” (“Happy Hanukkah”).

And in most Mizrahi and Sephardic homes, including my very Persian one, we don’t say “l’hadlik ner shel Hanukkah” as part of the prayers while lighting the hanukkiah. Rather, we say “l’hadlik ner Hanukkah,” omitting “shel.”

The difference is best explained by Rabbi Haim Yosef David Azulai (1724–1806), a Jerusalem-born rabbinic scholar of Moroccan descent.

“He explained that when we like Shabbat candles, we say ‘Ner Shel Shabbat’ because the light emanating from the candles ‘belong to the Shabbat’ (Shel Shabbat) for the purpose of bringing light into our homes on Shabbat,” Bouskila said, “whereas with Hanukkah, the lights emanating from the candles do not ‘belong to Hanukkah,’ for we are prohibited to benefit from the Hanukkah lights — they are kindled only for the mitzvah of remembering the miracle of Hanukkah.”

Whether coconut or olive oil, sfenj or patacones, celebrating women or hiding lit hanukkiahs away from sight, every Mizrahi or Sephardic Hanukkah tradition has its own vibrant story.

Whether coconut or olive oil, sfenj or patacones, celebrating women or hiding lit hanukkiahs away from sight, every Mizrahi or Sephardic Hanukkah tradition has its own vibrant story.

With the recent announcement of peace accords between Israel and Morocco, something tells me some Israelis will be daydreaming about Hanukkah in 2021 with a new adage: “Next year in Casablanca.”

Tabby Refael is a Los Angeles-based writer, speaker and activist.

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