It’s Chanukah again — and if that conjures uninspiring images of kitchen-table dreidel games and latkes at the stove, maybe it’s time to consider a twist: Chanukah out of town.
Unlike Passover and the High Holidays, Chanukah has no established getaway tradition. But it does have a party tradition, and so do a handful of cities where the Jewish communities celebrate with distinctive local flavor. This is also the ideal year to travel, since Chanukah falls in early December — neatly between the peak periods of Thanksgiving and Christmas.
So whether you have time for a day trip or the means for a trans-Atlantic jaunt, here are four destinations that guarantee a memorable Festival of Lights.
New York: the world’s largest menorah and a Jewish cooking renaissance
Of course New York City hosts the world’s largest menorah. This is a town that revels in its own superlatives, and the massive chanukiah that illuminates Grand Army Plaza in Manhattan befits the world’s largest urban Jewish community. Each night of Chanukah, crowds gather in front of the Plaza Hotel to watch the lights flicker on atop a 32-foot-high, 4,000-pound steel menorah.
The real reason to celebrate in New York this year is gustatory. From bagels to appetizers, the past few years have seen a renaissance of Jewish cooking in all its diversity — from the traditional lox purveyors that made the Lower East Side famous to trendy new boîtes like Mile End Deli. The latter, for those who don’t follow the New York food world, fuses Montréal-style Jewish fare with the Brooklyn passion for all things local and artisanal; the result is a menu that includes matzah ball soup, roasted sunchoke salad, poutine and Stumptown coffee. The Mile End team recently added a Manhattan location and launched Black Seed Bagels, which introduced controversial (but tasty) wood-fired bagels to a city still mourning the closing of H&H.
Some trace the Jewish-cooking renaissance to the rebirth of the storied 2nd Avenue Deli a few years back, when the murdered founder’s nephews reopened the shuttered kosher icon in two new locations. Also branching out is Russ and Daughters, which celebrated its first 100 years by opening a much-heralded restaurant in 2014 that landed on many critics’ lists. Meanwhile, Jewish-inspired bakeries like Sadelle’s in SoHo, which serves up treif like lobster salad alongside appetizing classics, add a modern twist to a scene that venerates the old school — epitomized by Barney Greengrass, the Upper West Side’s undisputed temple of smoked fish for over a century.
Which brings us to another reason to savor Jewish New York at Chanukah: Fresh, innovative takes on tradition are now sprinkled throughout the city rather than clustered downtown. You can bring the kids to the Jewish Museum Chanukah Family Day celebration on Dec. 14, then take your pick of pastrami at 2nd Avenue Deli (which is actually on First Avenue) or the new Upper East Side outpost of Pastrami Queen.
With an entire weekend …
How about latkes, Cajun-style? New Orleans lets the good times roll for Chanukah, with candle-lighting by the Mississippi, spicy latke cook-offs, and French Quarter festivities where Jewish classics get a Southern spin. After all, what is a latke if not a first cousin to a hush puppy?
New Orleans offers plenty of opportunities to contemplate the similarities this season. Start with a latke bar from local chef Daniel Esses at “Latkes With a Twist” on Dec. 3, a community-wide party sponsored by the Jewish Children’s Regional Service. It’s a chance to kick off the holiday early with cocktails and music from Israeli soul singer Eleanor Tallie at the sexy, candlelit Bellocq Bar.
Every year, an amateur latke-flipper shows his stuff against New Orleans’s finest chefs at the Celebrity Chef Latke Cook-Off 4.0, held each Chanukah at Chabad Uptown. Schmoozing, networking, flirting: it’s all encouraged at this annual event for young Jewish professionals, where home cooks can pick up latke-making tips from the pros over beer and games.
There are more latkes at the Dec. 6 menorah lighting on the Spanish Plaza at Riverwalk, where the chanukiah lights shimmer across the Mississippi River, and crowds gather for face painting and live music around a spectacular fountain. A decade ago, this waterfront was a very different place, and the exuberant rebirth of New Orleans — exemplified by the shiny new Riverwalk complex — is a modern miracle worth celebrating on Chanukah. Chabad of Louisiana sponsors the party, with a special emphasis on children’s activities.
A more grown-up Chanukah spread — along with serious foodie bragging rights — is to be had at Shaya, the much-touted Israeli restaurant whose chef, Alon Shaya, was raised on the East Coast. During the last week of December, Shaya will offer a family-style, $65-per-person prix fixe Chanukah dinner that starts with salmon caviar and caramelized oxtail jam for your latkes, and ends with sufganiyot garnished with candied satsuma and black tahini gelato.
Even after the eighth candle snuffs out, those latke bars go on. There’s a last chance to light the menorah at “Chanukah in the Quarter,” a Dec. 20 Latin-style fête for the 45-and-under set at Evangeline. Cocktails, a latke bar, desserts and (of course) a menorah lighting take place in the courtyard of this characteristic French Quarter spot, sponsored by JNOLA, an organization for young Jewish professionals.
If you’re looking for a way to rationalize all this carbo-loading, take heart; nearly every holiday party in this town is a fundraiser for charity. Those are calories for a cause.
… or you could head west to the capital of holiday kitsch
Ugly sweaters and silly costumes — why should Christmas corner the market on holiday kitsch? That’s the question asked by a lot of San Francisco Jews, who celebrate Chanukah with the quirky, ironic spirit that defines Bay Area culture.
You’ll find that spirit at nightspots around town, at events like HANUCON, the Chanukah edition of the “Mazel Top!” Gay Jewish cabaret series at SF Oasis — amazingly, it’s the Bay Area’s only gay Jewish club night. Or at the Punchline Comedy Club on Dec. 15, where “undercover” members of the tribe riff on their experiences as Asian-American and African-American Jews in a show called You’re Funny, But You Don’t Look Jewish.
Only in San Francisco would a nonreligious rock-music promoter team up with Chabad to make Chanukah history. That’s exactly what happened in 1975, when Chabad partnered with Bill Graham — who also happened to be a Holocaust survivor — to mount a 25-foot-high menorah in Union Square.
And that’s how San Francisco, perhaps the least Jewish of America’s big cities, became the birthplace of the public menorah-lighting movement. San Francisco designates the first Sunday of Chanukah as Bill Graham Menorah Day, and the “Mama Menorah” — so called for the legions of oversized public menorahs it has spawned in cities across the globe — remains the heart of the city’s Festival of Lights, drawing more than 5,000 people for latkes, sufganiyot and singing.
A very different kind of Chanukah party takes place in San Jose, where Jews who have always secretly coveted those bell-and-elf-laced Christmas sweaters gather for the Ugly Chanukah Sweater Party hosted by the Hillel of Silicon Valley. What qualifies a sweater is ugly in a place as counterculture as San Francisco maybe a matter of debate. But those looking to appropriate Christmas kitsch can advance the Jewish argument over doughnuts and dreidel designs.
And if you land in San Francisco too late for Chanukah, but right in time for Christmas? You’re in luck — just in time for the 23rd Annual Kung Pao Kosher Comedy, San Francisco’s longest-running comedy institution and a Christmas ritual for legions of irony-prone Jews. From Christmas Eve to Boxing Day, choose either the dinner show (early) or the cocktail show (late) at the New Asia Restaurant, for a metaphysical sendup of the ultimate American Jewish holiday rite.
Celebrate a modern miracle: Chanukah in Berlin
If Chanukah celebrates a long-ago miracle, what location could be more fitting for the party then Berlin, the modern miracle of European Jewish rebirth? Jewish life is flourishing in this least likely of postwar burgs, fueled by newcomers from the former Soviet Union and a more recent influx of Israelis, who have imported their taste for nightlife to a city already humming with after-dark activity. Even before the menorahs are lit, wintertime Berlin bathes in the soft glow of candles flickering from the windows of cafés.
There is perhaps no Chanukah sight more indelible then the massive chanukiah that illuminates the Brandenburg Gate, a landmark powerfully associated with the German state and the Nazi regime. When Yoav Sapir, an Israeli-born tour guide who specializes in Jewish heritage (berlinjewish.com), takes his visitors past that site, he talks about the dramatic changes in German-Jewish status — as well as the sad reality that every Jewish event and institution still must be heavily guarded.
Still, it is a sight no Jew could have imagined only 50 years ago — public menorahs lighting up crowded plazas all over Berlin. Nor could they have imagined the public revelry of Berlin’s annual Chanukah Ball, held each year on the Saturday of the holiday at the Grand Hyatt Berlin, with a live band and DJs spinning sets all night. Or the most improbable and lovely sight of all — capacity crowds of young people and children of all ages, singing and dancing and gobbling down sufganiyot during Chanukah festivities at Fraenkelufer Synagogue, a vibrant nexus of Jewish community in the Kreuzberg district.
How to catch the Berlin-Israeli vibe this Chanukah: Shop for Jewish tunes at Gordon Café and Record Store in Neukölln, a Berlin offshoot of the Tel Aviv music store. Debate the relative merits of the hummus at Zula, Djimalaya or Shiloh Vegetarian Café, three of the most popular hummusiyas that are sprouting up like dandelions in Israeli neighborhoods. Explore the parks and elegant prewar boulevards of Kreuzberg, where the chatter of Hebrew-speaking families mingles with Arabic, Turkish, and a variety of accents from all over Germany. Pick up a copy of Spitz, the Hebrew-language magazine of the Berlin Israeli community, for the latest on Chanukah happenings at Habait, the Israeli-expat cultural society that hosts the coolest parties, poetry readings and concerts.
Chanukah fairs are popping up in a city famous for its Christmas markets, with handcrafted menorahs and rugelach where once there were only fruitcakes and glühwein (the latter, hot spiced mulled wine) remains an ecumenical holiday pleasure and the perfect antidote for winter’s chill). The month-long market at the Jewish Museum Berlin is reportedly on hiatus this season — but visitors to the museum can enjoy Chanukah family festivals on December weekends, with games and retellings of the Maccabee story.
Wind down in the café’s sunny glassed-in courtyard, a pleasant setting for contemporary Jewish fare — a cuisine enlivened by the diverse cultures that are reinvigorating Berlin.
Hilary Danailova is spending this Chanukah at an undisclosed location. She freelances for the Jewish Exponent, where this article first appeared.