Celebrating Hanukkah in Germany

Celebrating Hanukkah in Germany

Christmas in Germany gets paid a lot of lip service each year. But what about December’s other religious celebrations? Today Young Germany looks at Hanukkah traditions in Germany.
by Nicolette Stewart

The 2012 American Jewish Yearbook estimated the Jewish population in Germany at 119,000.  Another article put the number in 2013 at over 200,000.  While that number is a small percentage of the country’s total population ( about 0.2 percent) and a fraction of what it was before World War II, there are still plenty of opportunities to celebrate Hanukkah in Germany—particularly in the big cities.  According to The Jewish Daily Forward, 50,000 Jews lived in Berlin in 2008—and that number has continued to rise as young Jewish people feel more comfortable moving to the country known for an uncomfortable history of Jewish persecution.

Since 2003, a large menorah is set up in front of Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate on the first day of Hanukkah every year. “Given that it was once the site of anti-Semitic rallies during the Nazi regime, the event not only marks the beginning of a religious holiday, but symbolizes the changes that have occurred in German society since the end of World War II,” commented Gabriela Fernandez in an article about Hanukkah traditions around the world. In Frankfurt, both a menorah and a Christmas tree are set up in front of the Alte Oper to honor both religious holidays during December.

The basics of the Hanukkah celebration—the lighting of the menorah each evening during the eight-day festival of lights, family gatherings, worship services, and the focus on fried foods like potato pancakes and jelly donuts—are present in Germany, with one addition.  In Germany, the wicks and oil left over from the menorah are collected and used to start bonfires at the end of the holiday for one last celebration.  As Fernandez tells us: “The celebration is especially poignant as many Germans recognize the parallels between the Jews who suffered under King Antiochus in the 2nd century B.C.E., and the plight of German Jews during the Holocaust.”  The defeat of King Antiochus (and the Greek rulers of the time) by the Maccabees is the story around which Hanukkah celebrations are based.

The dreidel, a small top used in a game traditionally played during Hanukkah, also stems from a German tradition.  Derived from the German word for “spinning top,” the dreidel game was adapted from a German gambling game.  “Hanukkah was one of the few times of the year when rabbis permitted games of chance. The four sides of the top bear four Hebrew letters: nun, gimmel, hey, and shin. Players begin by putting into a central pot or ‘kitty’ a certain number of coins, chocolate money known as gelt, nuts, buttons or other small objects.”  Read more about the game and other Hanukkah traditions here.

Finding a local Jewish community in Germany

Zentralrat der Juden in Deutschland (Central Council of Jews in Germany) is one place to start to learn about Jewish life in Germany.  To find a Jewish community near you, check out this online map of Jewish organizations across the country—there are approx 120 of these groups in Germany with over 100,000 members.

Do you celebrate Hanukkah? Hop over to the Young Germany facebook page and tell us what you have planned!

by Nicolette Stewart