Car-menorah parades set to light up cities worldwide
Photo: Oksana Kuznetsova Dnepr/Shutterstock
A Hanukkah menorah display on a car in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine, on Nov. 30, 2021

By Sarah Ogince

(JNS) Hanukkah celebrates light, religious freedom and — a theme less often emphasized — the potential of young people. This year, Jews around the world will take that celebration to the streets more powerfully than ever.

Last December, as Kyiv endured rolling blackouts, the city’s Jews kindled their menorahs privately at home, the tiny flames struggling against an omnipresent gloom. While the ensuing year brought little respite, the situation is now stable enough to permit large-scale celebration: Public menorah-lightings will be held all over the country, and — for the first time since the war began — parades of cars topped with illuminated menorahs will wind their way through the streets of at least four Ukrainian cities.

“The change this year is to really blow it up in terms of public acknowledgment,” said Judi Garrett, CEO of the Jewish Relief Network Ukraine, a Chabad-affiliated humanitarian organization that is coordinating the events. “Hanukkah is obviously very much about the children. These kids need normalcy in their lives, so we put a lot of work into it.”

The menorah parades are doubly welcome this year because of the war in Israel, Garrett told JNS.

Israel has received an outpouring of support in a community that is itself facing existential threat, because Ukrainian Jews “feel the need for connection and community,” Garrett said. “Support for Israel is another step in that continuum.”

Public expressions of Jewish pride are natural on the eight-day holiday, which begins this year on the evening of Dec. 7. Hanukkah commemorates the victory of a small band of young, religious Jews over Seleucid Greek armies in the second century BCE.

In the wake of Hamas’s Oct. 7 terror attacks, the holiday’s message of religious freedom is particularly resonant and the desire to pass tradition on to the next generation is more urgent than ever.

Granite menorah state

Outdoor Hanukkah celebrations are not usually a big draw in New Hampshire. “These things work better in warmer climates,” said Rabbi Berel Slavaticki, director of the Seacoast Chabad Jewish Center in Newington, New Hampshire. (Newington is in the southeastern part of the state, near the Maine border and some 60 miles from Boston.)

Seacoast’s first menorah parade five years ago included just four cars and unlike such parades elsewhere, the event takes place during the day, since the town’s streets are deserted on winter nights.

This year, Slavaticki expects the parade, scheduled for Dec. 13, to garner a large turnout among the young families and University of New Hampshire students who make up the Seacoast Jewish community.

“We already have people saying, ‘This year, I want to come,’” he said.

Youthful innovation

Though menorah-topped cars are now ubiquitous in many places around Hanukkah time, they were originally a stunt, the brainchild — unsurprisingly — of teenagers.

In 1973, a group of Chabad yeshivah students was on its way to Manhattan to distribute tin menorahs, at the behest of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. The students decided to up their game.

In a parent’s basement, they hammered together a crude wooden menorah, grounded it with cinder blocks, inserted flares for candles and roped it to the roof of a station wagon.

Half a century later, car menorahs have come a long way. Some models use magnets to avoid scratched paint. All draw power from the car battery.

Sadya Smetana, CEO of Gr8nes, which produces a sleek, modern-looking model with an illuminated body and flickering LED lights, told JNS that his mission is to make car menorahs — and Hanukkah itself — esthetically pleasing. (Artists have made beautiful menorahs for centuries; the collection of menorahs at the Jewish Museum in New York numbers more than 1,000.)

What began as a publicity stunt has become a universal Hanukkah tradition, according to Smetana, 20, who lives in Montreal.

“Many of the people buying the car menorah are not religious. They’re young families looking to make the holiday fun for their kids,” he said.

Sales at Smetana’s company have doubled this year compared to last.

“People are asking for 10 or 20 car menorahs to give out to friends as gifts,” he told JNS. “A guy had someone vandalize his car menorah and he bought 10 for his neighbors to put up.”

The company has also shipped thousands of menorahs to Israel, Smetana said, with U.S. donors paying for many of them.

COVID-19 boost

Outdoor menorah car parades got a boost during the COVID-19 pandemic, when it was safer at times to keep one’s distance from others, according to Rabbi Avrohom Zippel, director of Chabad of Salt Lake City, Utah.

Last year, when people were attending in-person events more frequently, Zippel canceled the parade. But it will return this year by popular demand, both from within and outside the community.

“We heard from some of the cops who had been escorts on the parade that they missed it,” he told JNS. “It looks like it’s here to stay.”

Smetana, who started making car menorahs in his teens, said that his company and menorah parades are just getting started.

“Give it a little more time, you’ll be able to fly over the world on Hanukkah and see the light,” he said.

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