There isn’t a more DIY holiday than Hanukkah. The Hanukkah story itself reads like an ancient life-hack: in this video I will teach you an easy trick for making one day’s worth of olive oil fuel a Menorah for eight.
And it’s not just that–whether you look at the widespread dreidel origin myth from the 19th century (that groups of Jews played dreidel to hide that they were actually studying Torah, which the Greeks had outlawed) or the custom of eating fried foods–historically the cheapest way to cook–Hanukkah is just chock-full of DIY resourcefulness.
One of my all time favorite DIY Hanukkah traditions came to me by way of my synagogue’s library. Back in my day (puts on bowler cap and shakes finger) there was no PJ Library or Amazon KDP with Jewish kids books sent directly to your doormat. You had the synagogue library and the two books about Hanukkah that someone had deemed publishable thirty years ago.
And that’s how I learned about the story of the potato Menorah.
In a book (which is long out of print and not at all searchable on google, though oh how I’ve tried), a grandfather shows his grandson how to make a Hanukiyah from scratch by carving nine holes across the open face of half a potato.
While Hanukiyot (sometimes also called Menorahs) are often decorative and expensive pieces of Judaica, it’s not a requirement. Historically in Eastern Europe, if Jews couldn’t afford to buy a “fancy” Hanukiyah, they would make one from what they had lying around. And if you have any familiarity with traditional Ashkenazi cuisine–the potato would be a logical place to start.
Despite having worked in a Judaica store (read: employee discount) and registered for Judaica at our wedding, we still don’t have enough Hanukiyot at the house for everyone to get their own, and so the potato Menorah has become a playful part of our Hanukkah tradition (despite my wife’s semi-serious protests that I just buy a backup already).
I make one almost every year because:
A) I loved that story as a kid and I’m embracing my inner child.
B) “Annoying” my wife is one of my favorite past-times.
C) But most importantly, I love getting my hands dirty in Judaism and experiencing rituals literally from scratch.
The thing is, the potato Menorah can sit proudly next to our more artisanal Hanukiyah–they both get the mitzvah done. But the potato Menorah reminds me of the Hanukiyot that I made as a child from a block of wood, nuts, bolts, and an epic amount of glitter. The haphazard clay Elijah’s cups or challah covers stiff with Elmer’s glue. How I always have and always will make Judaism mine.
In fact, the whole point of that single jar of oil that lasted eight nights and the light of the Menorah was that it made the once-profaned Temple in Jerusalem holy again, ours again.
So whether you try out the potato Menorah (for fun or by necessity) or some other Hanukkah DIY shenanigans (latkes, sufganiyot, decorations, and more), get a little messy and make the holiday yours.