Chanukah Warmth Below the Equator

By Surela Spielman

If you were to name one food you feel the Chanukah industry is missing, would latke ices come to mind? If you would want to innovate one product for the Three Weeks, would you design Yerushalayim-imprinted earmuffs? If you had to choose one fast day for which your community could use a special program to keep people inspired and focused, would it be Asarah B’Teves?

Sure… if you’re living in the Southern Hemisphere.

Usually, when calling overseas or across time zones, you make calculations as your brain jumps forward or backward several hours in your schedule. But when you think Southern Hemisphere, your brain needs to jump several months in time — to a totally different season.

An Aussie Chanukah

Mrs. Sara Koppel has been living in Melbourne, Australia, for over 30 years, ka”h. Originally from Eretz Yisrael, she still marvels at the unique seasonal shift.

“Right now, we’re just about winding down the school year,” she says. “We’re heading into summer, and we’ll break for vacation from mid-December until the start of February. While the boys have a shorter break, typically three weeks, the girls do have a proper six-week vacation stretch.

“Many families use the main three-week vacation to go on yarchei kallah — a frum getaway, Aussie-style. A group of 25-30 families rents a university together and each family gets a student dorm unit. Families brings along everything from home — including the equipment to kasher the kitchen sink! The men and boys spend their mornings learning, and the families spend their afternoons together, going on nearby outings, renting pools, or enjoying one another’s company.”

Listening to Mrs. Koppel speak and contrast that with our current reality — immersed deep in the school year and heading into the winter frost — I become tempted to move to Australia.

Until she describes Chanukah — while on summer vacation. “The more geshikte balabustas bring along frying pans and latke-making equipment. The rest make do with a laid-back Yom Tov celebration. The boys who may be in sleepaway camp at the time pack along menoros in their suitcases.”

Mrs. Rochel Leah Burstyn, who spent her childhood in Melbourne and currently lives in Detroit, shares her personal memories of sleepaway camp on Chanukah. “It’s an incredibly fun experience. One of the married men lit the menorah for all the campers while everyone stood on chairs, arms around each other, singing Chanukah songs together. It was beautiful! The first night activity of Chanukah was all dreidel games and fun Chanukah celebrations.”

Lighting the menorah on long summer days has its own dynamic. Think of Kiddush Shavuos night or a summer Friday night seudah, and you can imagine the typical energy level during hadlakas neiros close to 10 p.m.

“When my children were younger, they lit their menoros for fun (and chinuch!) at six o’clock in broad daylight and got whisked into bed, hours before shkiah!” Mrs. Koppel reminisces. “Most Chanukah gatherings happen before the hadlakah, because afterwards, it’s way too late. And, of course, a Chanukah barbecue is a standard venue, thanks to the beautiful weather…”

Summer Vacation Chanukah Fun?

In Northern Hemisphere elementary schools and preschools, Chanukah is one of the most intensively learned-about Yamim Tovim. In contrast to the Yamim Nora’im, Sukkos and Shavuos, it’s the only Yom Tov in the middle of the long learning stretch, so teachers spend a considerable amount of time giving Chanukah center stage. However, in Southern Hemisphere countries, Chanukah usually coincides with vacation. While teachers make sure to teach about the Yom Tov before finishing the year at the beginning of Kislev, those are crammed lessons, taught against the backdrop of the last two weeks of school, end-of-year fever… radically different from our detailed menorah projects and long Chanukah plays.

Unlike in the States, Mrs. Burstyn remembers lots of community-run family events on Chanukah. Most notably, thousands of Yidden from communities across the spectrum join for a major Chabad-coordinated event called “Chanukah in the Park,” featuring booths, rides and exciting entertainment. Towards the end of the event, when it grows dark, Rabbi Yossel Gutnick is lifted up in a crane to light the tall menorah. The event concludes with a dazzling fireworks show (except for the one year when it was too hot and dangerous).

Mrs. Burstyn describes Chanukah in the warmer climate as more fun and engaging — perhaps as a result of the sunny weather and the celebratory atmosphere it creates. “Besides, we vacation on Chanukah, remember? So if we spent all night celebrating, we were able to sleep late the next morning. This wasn’t a Thursday through Monday Chanukah vacation. It was official!”

Still, maybe because it’s vacation and everyone is scattered around, maybe because it’s Melbourne and the frum community is not all that overpowering, Mrs. Koppel misses the all-encompassing Chanukah aura of Eretz Yisrael.

“Although I left Eretz Yisrael 30 years ago, every year I miss it all over again. In Yerushalayim, the air breathes Chanukah! The stores, the buses, the people — everything seems to be Yom Tov’dig. And over here, it’s quiet. I mean, if you’re at a gathering, you are enjoying the party. But after that, it’s over…”

Chanukah in Other Southern-Hemisphere Communities

Brazil, home to another frum community on the “wrong side of the globe,” has its own unique Chanukah flavor. Former Brazilian Mrs. Gitta Hamburger explains that because Chanukah coincides with vacation, when she lived in Brazil, many Brazilians don’t even get to experience Chanukah under the sun. Instead they spend the vacation weeks visiting family and friends in Eretz Yisrael and the States, experiencing the typical “sheleg al ha’aretz”-style Chanukah along with the rest of us. While we in the Northern Hemisphere are used to family and community get-togethers on Chanukah, Brazilians are often scattered in their various vacation niches, spending Yom Tov with overseas families.

Mrs. Elisheva Ortner, originally of Johannesburg, South Africa — also south of the equator — describes Chanukah with a South African flavor. “One of the beautiful facets of South African living is the harmonious connection to Hashem’s nature. In Johannesburg, on our bi-annual month-long vacation break — one month in August and one month in January — families use the opportunity to explore South Africa’s natural marvels, either at the coast or on a wildlife reserve.

“So we spent many Chanukah days enjoying the beauty of the Bush wildlife reserve, one hour away from Joburg, or even in Kruger National Park, a large national park five hours away featuring a high density of wild animals in their natural habitat. We would rent a Bush lodge or chalet and spend the day enjoying glimpses of the animals’ splendor and strength in their natural habitat.

“We would not stay there for Shabbos because there is no minyan on premises, but we did bring along our menoros and burners and enjoyed lighting the menorah in a very beautiful setting. When we spent Chanukah at the coast, at Cape Town, we did enjoy Chabad’s minyan and would often stay over the weekend. There, Chabad organized various Chanukah activities.

“Now, while not all South African Yidden are Torah observant, they are all traditional, connected to Yiddishkeit, and have the typical Afrikaaner trademark warmth and openness, so these events attracted a wide range of Yidden and were especially meaningful. Chanukah’s weather is enchantingly warm and balmy, and it’s the perfect setting for a beautiful Yom Tov.”

Mrs. Janine Chapman, nee Rosin, who resided in Johannesburg, points out that sunset on the coast is later than in Johannesburg, which made for an especially late menorah lighting when her family spent Chanukah vacation at Cape Town. Mrs. Chapman also recalls spending Chanukah in the company of whichever friends happened to be vacationing in the same locale as her family, so each year was a unique experience…

Yossi Arlington (not his real name) contrasts Chanukah in Johannesburg with the Yom Tov in other frum communities. He shares that it is unlike other places, where the celebrations are primarily in the homes, rather than on the streets, as it is in South Africa.

“Vacationing on Yom Tov gives Chanukah a twist of its own,” he explains. “Like the time my friend ran into car trouble and almost ran out of gas while traveling. He miraculously — after promising a sizable amount to tzedakah — got home safely, and we celebrated our own version of ‘Nes gadol hayah sham!’”

Not Just Chanukah Jewish Life with Inverted Seasons

Chanukah is not the only Yom Tov that gets a facelift in the Southern Hemisphere. Purim in the heat has its own set of challenges. After all, heavy, bulky costumes are not that suitable for 80-degree weather. So you’ll see lots of beheaded teddy bears and un-costumed snowmen walking around town as the heat intensifies! Also, which foods should you include in your mishloach manos that will last several hours under the broiling sun? Not chocolates, definitely not ice cream, and neither fruits or veggies…

Asarah B’Teves is the longest fast of the year, and Taanis Esther is a close runner-up. Tishah B’Av and Shivah Asar B’Tammuz are short and simple. Mrs. Burstyn remembers when she moved to America, she found it ironic that all those who would usually not fast on a minor fast day did fast on one of the longest — Tishah B’Av — while in Australia, many are exempt from fasting the longest fast — Asarah B’Teves — and the mandatory Tishah B’Av is short and manageable.

Sukkos and Pesach are the in-between seasons when it can be winter, summer, spring and fall, all at once. Except that in the Southern Hemisphere, as you clean your car for Pesach, you’re crunching fall leaves underfoot, and when you’re sitting in your sukkah, you can smell the newly blossoming trees and hear the chirping of baby birds.

Mrs. Ortner describes Sukkos in Johannesburg as particularly exceptional because in Africa, it coincides with the rain season. “I know it rains in the States on Sukkos. But in Johannesburg, the skies open and the world gets drenched with sheets of rain. I remember one Sukkos when the rain came so fast and so deep, I was literally wading with my boys to shul… Also, because of the rainfall, Sukkos correlates with the planting season. In fact, our non-Jewish gardener knew when he saw our huts go up, it was time for him to start planting for the next season…”

Mrs. Koppel feels that the Yom Tov the Southern Hemisphere celebrates in the most enhanced way is Shavuos. “It’s cold; the night is long. It’s perfect to hunch over a sefer with a mug of steaming tea for an intense learning stretch,” she comments.

The school year also has its own flavor. The typical “back-to-school-think-about-Yom-Hadin” speech doesn’t work. If anything, it’s “back-to-school-hold-off-the-Purim-shtick-please!” Also, Rosh Hashanah is missing some of the his’chadshus feeling that fall weather provides.

Ironically, the Three Weeks are at the climax of the school year, so students learn about galus intensely. Mrs. Burstyn remembers once, when learning about the halachos of the Nine Days, a classmate asked, “Why are we learning about not swimming in the Nine Days? It’s so cold! Who would think of jumping into a pool today?” She recalls the teacher reminding the class that they’re on the wrong side of the equator — and the stormy discussion that followed as her young classmates started thinking about the world beyond their own.

Mrs. Ortner talks about a school year that coincides, in great part, with warm weather. “My kids would come home from school at four and jump into the pool. How’s that for a pre-homework workout?”

Rabbi and Mrs. Rosenberg living in Brooklyn for decades, came from South America. While they can list lots of contrasts between the two continents and communities, Rabbi Rosenberg declares, “Yom Tov is Yom Tov. Wherever it is. When you’re in it, it’s just normal… and special.”