This week marks the beginning of Hanukkah, when Jewish people all over the world commemorate the rededication (“Hanukkah” means “rededication” in Hebrew) of Jerusalem’s Holy Temple, which was reclaimed by Jews from the Syrian Greek empire in the second century BC. 

Also known as the Festival of Lights, the ancient story goes like this: after a group of Jews took back the temple, they found only enough oil there to light the temple for one night. Yet miraculously, the oil kept the temple lit for eight nights in a row. Since then, Jews have commemorated this miracle by lighting a single candle on the menorah on the first night of Hanukkah, then two on the second night, and so on, until all eight candles symbolizing the eight nights in the temple are ablaze by the end of the holiday.

Once a relatively minor celebration on the Jewish calendar, Hanukkah became more widely honored in the 20th century, with menorahs lit in Jewish homes and lighting ceremonies in many cities and towns. Like most holidays, the week involves special foods, prayers, traditional songs, and games with a four-sided top known as a dreidel; in recent decades, the practice of exchanging small gifts each night has also caught on. 

Yet also like other holidays, how Hanukkah is observed varies, with different cultures putting their own unique spin on things. Here’s a look at some of the ways Jews around the globe celebrate the triumph of light over darkness.

Eastern Europe

Jews in Eastern European countries celebrate the holiday by eating latkes—oil-fried potato pancakes, which took advantage of the availability of potatoes in this part of the world, says Rabbi Ayelet Cohen, director of the Center for Jewish Living at JCC Manhattan in New York City.  Jewish immigrants then brought the custom to North America.


Indians of Jewish heritage light their menorahs with wicks are have been dipped in coconut oil rather than candles, a different way to honor the miracle of the oil, says Simon J. Bronner, Ph.D., distinguished professor of American studies and folklore at Penn State University. Also in India, some Jews replace latkes with a food called burfi, a confectionary made with condensed milk and sugar, says Bronner.


“Among Yemenite Jews, the seventh night of Hanukkah is set aside as a women's holiday,” says Bronner. The night commemorates Hannah, sometimes spelled Channah, whose story is told in the Book of Maccabees. According to the text, Hannah and her seven sons defied the Syrian Greeks who ruled Jerusalem at the time, and she and her sons were killed for refusing to give up their beliefs.


In Israel, Jews feast on round jelly donuts called sufganiyot. Like latkes, sufganiyot are fried in oil. “The oil symbolizes the small amount of oil the ancient Jews had with them to light their temple, which lasted eight days,” says Cohen. Sufganiyot must be delicious; this sweet tradition increasingly makes it to dinner tables in America and other parts of the Jewish Diaspora. 


In Istanbul, Jews sing a song commemorating the eight menorah candles called “Ocho Candelas,” and eat oil-fried fritters known as “burmelos,” says Bronner.


Jews in Morocco also celebrate by enjoying fried jelly donuts. But Bronner says that  their version, called Sfenj, is made with the juice and zest of an orange. “This might have been reinforced because the Jaffa oranges came into season as the holiday approached,” he says.


Italian Jews share recipes for a lightly sweetened, olive oil infused, honey-covered treat called precipizi, which originated in Turin, says Bronner.

Do you have a special way you celebrate Hanukkah? Please share it with us in the comments below.