22 Dec

Map of the Week: Celebrating Hanukkah with Google Earth

By Jordan Brennan

Hanukkah, which means “dedication” in Hebrew, is an eight-day Jewish celebration beginning on the 25th of Kislev on the Hebrew Calendar, and typically occurring in November or December. Often dubbed the “Festival of Lights,” Hanukkah is celebrated with the lighting of the menorah, traditional foods, games, and gifts. In 2017, Google Earth launched a new feature, called Voyager, which allowed users to tour the world through a collection of map-based stories. These stories have explored topics including travel, culture, nature, and history. Now, Google Earth, with contributor David Cooper, has debuted a new and immersive map-based story of Hanukkah, called “Celebrating Hannukah.” From Jerusalem to St. Petersburg, the interactive map deck allows users to discover key sites in the history of Judaism and explore locations across the globe where Hanukkah has made its mark.

The first location Google Earth takes you is the Western Wall, a holy site in Jerusalem. Hanukkah is a holiday meant to celebrate the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 165 B.C. Back then, the Seleucid king Antiochus had outlawed Judaism, and opted to install Greek idols within the temple. In the Maccabean Revolt, the Jewish people rebelled and, despite being outnumbered by the Seleucid army, managed to win. The Western Wall that stands today once formed a portion of the foundations for the sacred Second Temple. 

The second location Google Earth features is Mount of Olives, a Jerusalem mountain ridge that has been used as a cemetery for Jewish people since biblical times, and now holds more than 150,000 graves. Named for the olive groves that once covered its slopes, Mount of Olives highlights the importance of olive oil in the story of Hanukkah. After the Jewish people had reclaimed the Second Temple from the Seleucids, its sacred Menorah was lit with enough oil to last only one day. It took eight days to purify more oil, however, in what many have called a miracle, the menorah continued to burn. In Israel, celebrating Hanukkah is often marked with the words “Nes Gadol Haya Po,” which translates to “a great miracle happened here.” 

Google Earth’s story then takes us to Grand Army Plaza, which is a park located in Brooklyn, New York. As home to more than one million Jewish citizens, New York hosts an annual competition between Central Park and Prospect Park to display the biggest Hanukkah menorah in the world. The menorah on display in Grand Army Plaza tops out at 32.5 feet (9.9 m). The next location we travel to is the Grand Choral Synagogue, located in St. Petersburg, Russia. Historically, anti-Semetic legislation that ran rampant throughout Russia often caused many Russian-Jewish people to celebrate their religious holidays in private. In recent years, however, Hanukkah has become a lively event in St. Petersburg. The Grand Choral Synagogue has been known to host an outdoor celebration with accompanying music, and local eateries often serve traditional fried foods, including latkes and sufganiyot. 

Although Hanukkah gained the moniker, Festival of Lights, the holiday doesn’t necessarily have to involve candles. For instance, Indians of Jewish heritage are known to light their menorahs with wicks dipped in coconut oil. This tradition brings us to our fifth destination – the Paradesi Synagogue in Kerala, India. Google Earth points out that this is the oldest active Jewish synagogue in the Commonwealth of Nations, and was built by the Sephardic Jewish people who fled the Inquisition of the 16th century. The next location highlighted by Google Earth is Safed Candles Ltd., an art gallery and shop in the Old Jewish Quarter of Safed, Israel, where locals can purchase an assortment of artistic beeswax candles. The ancient city of Safed, or Tzefat, dates back to the Second Temple era and provides the perfect atmosphere for celebrating Hanukkah. There are candlelit tours featuring stories of the city’s famed mystics, live music concerts, and stunning views of Safed’s seemingly endless parade of outdoor menorahs encased in glass. 

Google Earth then calls attention to Trafalgar Square in London, England, where a significant amount of London’s Jewish community comes together to celebrate Hanukkah every year. The first night of festivities is marked by the lighting of a huge public menorah, along with live music and dancing. Google Earth notes that in England, as well as other countries around the world, Jewish people often take part in games of dreidel, which involves spinning a four-sided wooden top in order to win or lose golden chocolate coins called “gelt.” Google Earth’s story takes us to the Dohány Street Synagogue in Budapest, Hungary, next. Budapest holds the largest Jewish population in all of Eastern Europe, and takes its celebratory responsibilities seriously. Previous celebrations have included flash mobs, theatrical performances, concerts, and more. Of course, much of the celebration is centered around the Dohány Street Synagogue, which can hold 3,000 people, making it the second largest synagogue in the world. 

The final location of Google Earth’s Hanukkah story is the Jewish Museum of Australia, located in St. Kilda. Hanukkah takes place during Australia’s summer, which means block parties and barbeques have become the popular method of celebrating in this area. The Jewish Museum of Australia holds a collection of holiday-related Judaica, including a well-curated assortment of menorahs. The map story also mentions that a number of other cities with heavy Jewish populations have similar museums, with equally fascinating collections of Hanukkah’s history.

If you are celebrating Hanukkah this year, take a moment to explore the holiday’s vast and rich history. Stories such as the one offered through Google Earth’s Voyager experience can help us tap into our forgotten histories and bring us closer to the communities that surround us. On behalf of the American Geographical Society, we want to wish you all a Happy Hanukkah and a wonderful holiday season!