Even though France is now a secular country and prides itself on laïcité (“freedom of conscience”), it has a long history of Roman Catholicism before the French Revolution got rid of a national religion. This means that while there is no official state religion, the majority of its citizens are Catholic, and thus holidays such as Christmas and Easter are celebrated very publicly, with special lights, giant Christmas trees (sapin in French), and Christmas-themed window and building dressings. What you may not know, though, is that France has the third largest Jewish population in the world (after Israel and the US), approximately 600,000 people, half of which are living in Paris. Since our CEO is Jewish and we’re certain to have Jewish followers, in the spirit of inclusion, here is a guide on Hanukkah in Paris.
For those who don’t know the story of Hanukkah, it is a celebration of the Jews’ triumph over the Greek-Syran rulers in the 2nd century B.C.E. and the rededication of the Second Temple of Jerusalem. When the Temple had been restored, the oil that fuelled the menorah’s flame was only supposed to last one day but instead burned for eight, which is why we celebrate eight days of Hanukkah. The ninth candle on the menorah serves as the ‘lighter candle’ to illuminate the others. Just as the Christmas tree is the symbol of Christmas, the menorah is the symbol for Hanukkah, and a candle is lit each night. In Paris, a giant menorah is set up on the Champ de Mars in front of the Eiffel Tower, a decades-old tradition organized by Chabad-Lubavitch.
A big part of the celebration of Hanukkah is feasting. Classic foods for Hanukkah include potato latkes with sugar, apple sauce, or sour cream, jelly doughnuts, and certain meats popular amongst jews around the world (brisket is a popular one). To get everything needed for your Hanukkah dinner, pop over to Sacha Finkelsztajn’s famous La Boutique Jaune in the Marais and pick up some delicious ruggelach, the crunchiest latkes, or traditional Jewish Gefilte fish.
After feasting, many Jewish families will play dreidel. Dreidels have four Hebrew letters on them, shin, hay, gimel, and nun, and they stand for the saying, Nes gadol haya sham, meaning “a great miracle occurred there,” referring to the rededication of the Temple. The Hanukkah gelt (or chocolate money) is divided equally amongst all players. Every time it’s your turn, spin the dreidel once. Depending on the side it lands on, you either give or get gelt pieces from the pot.
On January 7th 2015, Muslim extremist attacked the Charlie Hebdo offices, and a few days later a Jewish grocery store, leaving a total of 16 people dead. This attack left Parisians and Jews scared and nervous about the future, but we bonded together around the slogan Je Suis Charlie, and 3.7 million people in Paris came together for the rally against terrorism. Unfortunately, terror struck again a month before Hanukkah on November 13th 2015, this time killing 130 people and injuring several hundreds more, rattling the city of Paris once again. Many major public holiday events were shut down, and when news came out that the terrorists had planned to strike the Marais, the Jewish neighborhood, Parisian Jews were discouraged by police from gathering to celebrate the holiday. We were not going to let terrorists dictate how we celebrate Hanukkah, and so thousands of Jews and non-Jews alike came out to the Champ de Mars in solidarity to, once again, light the menorah.