Hanukkah is a block party in Jerusalem — with olive-oil menorahs lighting up the streets

The World
A young boy lights Hanukkah lights in Jerusalem's Nachlaot neighborhood.

A young boy lights Hanukkah lights in Jerusalem's Nachlaot neighborhood, December 3, 2013.

Daniel Estrin

Tonight is the final night of Hanukkah, the eight-day Jewish festival of lights. And in Israel, the celebration can be a bit different than in the US.

For one thing, it spills into the streets. For another, many Israelis are lighting traditional menorahs that use olive oil rather than wax candles.

In one alleyway of Nachlaot, a neighborhood of Jerusalem, a group of Israelis gather around seven glass cases filled with olive-oil menorahs. In this Mediterranean country, tree branches heavy with lemons peek out from a courtyard.

The Van Leeuwen family, eight kids and two parents, sit on a couch they pulled into the alleyway and lead the crowd in song — the Jewish equivalent of Christmas caroling.

“It’s very sweet,” said Ricka Van Leeuwen, the matriarch of the family. “People light a lot of menorahs and sit outside and sing songs. The neighborhood itself is a very special place. There are a lot of alleyways, so you can walk in the streets.”

Those alleyways are lit by menorahs: some are rows of shot glasses with wicks floating in oil, others are elaborate silver candelabras.

All of them are lit with oil, a practice dating back to the story of Hanukkah.

As the story goes, around 2000 years ago, the Seleucid king who ruled in Jerusalem turned the Jewish temple into a temple for Zeus. Jews revolted and reclaimed the temple and its ceremonial menorah, and according to tradition, a small vial of oil miraculously lit the menorah for eight days, until more oil could be secured.

Just up the street, Van Leeuwen’s brother Yehuda Razel lights what seems to be the biggest menorah in the neighborhood. Razel found it in the garbage some years ago — he thinks it was a set piece for a play — and he fixed it up and spray-painted it gold.

The branches of the menorah are topped with glass lanterns that hold big cups of olive oil. “They light all night, and sometimes more than that,” said Razel.

The previous night, he said, he experienced his own Hanukkah miracle: When he came to light the menorah, the oil lamps were still lit from the night before.