Explaining Kosher to a Customs Officer

Menorah on a decorated table

© Michaela Conen

Year after year, Jews in Germany ask themselves the same question: where are they going to get their Hanukkah paraphernalia? Santa Clauses smile at us from every shop window, the shelves are overflowing with a huge variety of delicacies wrapped up in glitzy packaging, and of course there are Advent calendars everywhere. Even the parcels we receive long before the day itself are decorated for Christmas – but amidst this splendor, Hanukkah products are nowhere to be found. The ‘usual suspects,’ the stores with Jewish literature or kosher groceries, always have paper plates and decorations with the same designs as five years ago. I can almost hear the children say, “oh no, not the same stuff again!” So, what to do? 

Menorah with first candle burning

© Michaela Conen

First, the menorah gets polished til it gleams and then I varnish the children’s candelabra, buy kosher candles, and at last, turn on the computer. I will need to turn to the World Wide Web in search of new ways to offer the children more appetizing Hanukkah magic mixed in with all this Christmas wonder.

I strike the real bonanza in the United States. Not only are they miles ahead of us in Hanukkah products generally, but they also have endless amounts of kitsch: teddy bears with Hanukkah t-shirts, kosher chocolate lollipops with menorah decorations, electric lights to hang in your windows at home. Two months and a letter from the German customs office later, I learn that a package is ready for pick-up and I head after work to the customs house on Kufsteiner Straße, letter in hand.

Hanukkah teddy bear

© Michaela Conen

© Michaela Conen

A bored-looking woman at the information counter watches the growing line and I have to ask myself if I’m really going to see this package today. Then at last the familiar “next, please,” and she gazes down at my letter. “What’s in the package? What are you expecting?” “Hanukkah decorations,” I answer. “What’s that?” she replies, taken aback. I ponder how best to respond to her, since after all there is the long story about a miracle, the fight for survival, and the will of the Jews to keep their faith.

Candles burning on the first night of Hanukkah

© Michaela Conen

I confine myself to the essential point: “Hanukkah is a Jewish holiday.” “Ah. So… like Christmas?” she says. “Not exactly.” “Oh, well, that’s ok, I’ll just write ‘Hanukkah’ on the form and underneath it, ‘Christmas items’.” That really isn’t what the Maccabees (in Aramaic, makkaba: the hammer) intended when, as Jewish freedom fighters in Jerusalem, they took a stand against the religious edict of the ruler Antioch IV. But as I take a breath to embark on this explanation, the line behind me starts getting restless. Still occupied with the form, the customs employee asks me to go to a computer across the room, call up the articles that I ordered online, and print out the receipt so she can calculate the customs duty.

I get the business over with, so I think, collect my number, and wait until – two hours later – “284” lights up on the board. I enter the room with the packages where I’m greeted by a friendly, smiling woman looking at me curiously. “You ordered Christmas items?” I roll my eyes a little and wonder where to start – again. If at all?

Lollipops with Menorah decoration

© Michaela Conen

Before I can say anything, the woman explains: “Actually you have lollipops here, so the duty needs to be recalculated for foodstuff. What’s in the lollipops? I mean, what kind of ingredients?” I reply that the lollipops are kosher and that I don’t know whether they have a packaging slip with an ingredients’ list. When she then asks what “kosher” ingredients are, so that she can look them up to do the re-calculation, I give up. “Chag Sameach!” It’s Hebrew and means, more or less, “happy holidays.”

Michaela Conen, Corporate Performance Management

For more information on Hanukkah and Christmas, visit our Christmukkah exhibition website.


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