In the secular country that created Santa Claus, not too far from the North Pole, where the nights start early and are bitterly cold and long, Rabbi Binyomin Wolff of Chabad Finland lit a giant Chanukah menorah made of ice near the city's railroad station, at 3 in the afternoon. More important than the traditional latkes and donuts were the gallons of hot chocolate that warmed the fingers and bellies of 400 folks from all over, including statesmen and politicians, who blessed the Chanukah lights. The hot cocoa is a sweet lure — for in Finland, light has strong meaning and plays an important role in society. It sustains the Finns — and the message will last at least as long as the menorah does. It won't melt until March.
Meanwhile, Down Under, at the other end of the planet, in Sydney, Australia, on a really long and very hot day, the rabbi's brother, Rabbi Levi Wolff, of the Central Synagogue, made sure that everything was in order for his menorah lighting in the city center. Last year, a four-foot chocolate dreidel was devoured before it could melt in the summer heat. The parade through Sydney, with its portable menorah, is always a hit, along with fun, games, and Sydney city officials giving their blessings to this very prominent display of Jewish tradition.In New York City, the largest oil menorah in the world, (32 feet high and 4,000 pounds of gold painted metal) designed by Israeli artist Yaacov Agam, stands in Grand Army Plaza at Manhattan's most prestigious intersection — Fifth Avenue, Central Park South and 59th Street — a holiday crossroads if ever there was one.
The stately and elegant New York landmark, The Plaza Hotel, stands and shines behind the menorah in her French Chateau-style glory, a magnet for well-heeled internationals. The world's largest toy store, FAO Schwartz — all blinged out and bedecked for the holidays, faces the gargantuan menorah. Clustered around it are the fancy department stores, designer boutiques, and La Vielle Russie, a New York gem in its own right, all aglitter and aglow, ready to attract masses of tourists and shoppers like moths to a flame. Expecting the usual, the strollers cast their gaze upon the menorah and stop in their tracks. What a surprise! Thousands watched it get lit from a cherry picker while munching on some of the more than 5,000 latkes that were fried to crispy perfection for the party.
Some observers will remember and wonder about Israel's ancient past and the Chanukah of their childhoods — the latkes, the dreidels, the foil-wrapped chocolate coins, and stay for the nostalgia. Others wonder what these strange structures are for, what the lights mean, and if they stay a while, they find out and perhaps taste a latke or donut. And yet others are there because lighting a menorah in the middle of any major city or small town is a great way to say who and what you are with pride — proud to be a Jew and proud to be an American, an Australian, a Brit, a Canadian, a Finn or an Israeli. Around the globe, thousands of public menorahs are lit (often after legal battles) to celebrate the festival that marks religious freedom. And millions more menorahs are lit in private homes, synagogues, hospitals, nursing homes, and schools.
On a recent Chanukah, a traveler from France was headed to JFK airport to catch a flight back to Paris. He was a Holocaust survivor and as he rode past the enormous housing development built along the highway, (5,881 apartment units in 46 buildings) he looked up at the windows, and saw hundreds upon hundreds of menorahs glowing in the windows. He burst into tears. "Only in a free world can Jews live free," he cried. And then he made the blessing, "Shehecheyanu," thanking God for having lived to see what for him was an amazing sight and how far he had come in 65 years.